A UN arms embargo on Iran expired on Sunday, in a blow to the Trump administration that failed in its attempts to extend it.
The lifting of the embargo, part of the nuclear deal that Tehran signed with world powers in 2015, is a symbolic victory for the Islamic republic, which has been under intense pressure from Washington since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the accord two years ago.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said the expiration of the embargo was a “momentous day” for the international community, which had defied the US’s “malign” efforts and protected the nuclear accord.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said Washington would sanction “any individual or entity that materially contributes to the supply, sale, or transfer of conventional arms to or from Iran”.
“Every nation that seeks peace and stability in the Middle East and supports the fight against terrorism should refrain from any arms transactions with Iran,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement. “Providing arms to Iran will only aggravate tensions in the region.”
The Trump administration had sought to extend the embargo but suffered a defeat at the UN Security Council in August, when Russia and China voted against the move and 11 powers, including the UK, France and Germany, abstained.
The following month, the US imposed more sanctions and Mr Trump claimed that all UN sanctions on Iran had been restored and the arms embargo extended.
While sharing some of the US’s concerns, Washington’s European allies said that the US could not take such measures because it had already withdrawn from the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA.
“In the short term, the impact of the expiry will be limited. Iran’s financial position means we don’t expect them to be able to make large purchases of arms,” said a European diplomat. “We share the US objectives; where we differ is on whether you should collapse the JCPOA to achieve them. For us it’s really important to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon and we still believe the JCPOA is the best vehicle.”
The UK, Germany and France opposed Mr Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the deal in 2018 and impose swingeing sanctions on the republic. Iran increased its nuclear activity in response but Tehran and the other signatories, including Russia and China, have remained committed to the 2015 deal.
The expiration of the embargo, which the UN Security Council imposed in 2007, was agreed as one of the so-called sunset clauses in the accord.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, said this week that Tehran could import and export arms to “whoever we like as of Sunday”. But potential buyers will be wary of being targeted by secondary US sanctions.
Analysts said it was unlikely that Iran would embark on large arms purchases because its economy has been crippled by the US sanctions, coronavirus and the slump in oil prices.
However, Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said Russia and China were likely to announce arms agreements with Iran “to poke the Trump administration in the eye” and show that “the US was the loser in the game”.
But she added: “US sanctions on the financial sector and recent measures targeting Iran’s defence industry will make Russian and Chinese companies think twice, both in terms of coming under US pressure and if they can get paid by Iran.”
The lifting of the embargo is unlikely to alter the balance of military power in the region, as Iran’s regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, spend tens of billions of dollars on US weapons.
Iran has been under varying degrees of international sanctions since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which forced it to develop an indigenous defence industry.
It produces an array of weapons, including drones and ballistic missiles, that are considered core to its national security. It has also built up a network of militant groups across the region that act as proxies as part of its defence strategy, aware that it cannot compete with its rivals in terms of conventional weapons.
“Iran has neither the resources, the personnel, the doctrine or the eager sellers to grow into a conventional power rapidly,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But there are discrete capabilities that would threaten US dominance, such as anti-ship missiles.”