U.N. Ban on Iran Arms Transfers and Sanctions Snapback

Updated October 16, 2020
U.N. Ban on Iran Arms Transfers and Sanctions Snapback
Effects of the Ban
A 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (Joint
Assessing the effectiveness of the arms transfer ban, the
Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), provides for
congressionally mandated Defense Intelligence Agency
limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions
(DIA) annual report on the military power of Iran for 2019,
relief. Annex B of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231
released in November 2019, states that Iran wants to
(July 17, 2015), which endorsed the JCPOA, provided for a
“purchase new advanced weapon systems from foreign
ban on the transfer of arms to or from Iran until October 18,
suppliers to modernize its armed forces, including
2020. The Trump Administration, supported by many in
equipment it has largely been unable to acquire for
Congress, sought to extend the ban in order to try to prevent
Iran from acquiring new conventional weaponry. On
August 14, the U.N. Security Council, including two key
Figure 1. Iran’s Regional Allies
potential arms suppliers of Iran—Russia and China—voted
down a U.S. draft to extend the arms transfer ban. An
overwhelming majority of the Council also has refused to
recognize a U.S. assertion that it had standing to implement
the provision of Resolution 2231 that enables JCPOA
participants to snap back all U.N. sanctions on Iran,
including the arms transfer ban. The dispute over the U.S
snapback request remains unresolved. Annex B also
contains a ban, until October 18, 2023, on supplying
equipment with which Iran could develop nuclear-capable
ballistic missiles, and calls on Iran not to develop ballistic
missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons. See CRS
Report RS20871, Iran Sanctions, by Kenneth Katzman.
Provisions of the Arms Transfer Ban
Annex B restated and superseded the restrictions of: (1)

Resolution 1747 (2007), which banned Iran’s transfer of
Source: Defense Intel igence Agency. Iran Military Power: 2019.
arms from its territory and required all U.N. member states
to prohibit the transfer of Iranian arms from its territory,
Regarding the ban on Iran’s exportation of arms, the DIA
and (2) Resolution 1929 (2010), which banned the supply to
report (which represents a consensus U.S. judgment) stated:
Iran of “any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large
“Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has transferred a wide
calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters,
range of weapons and military equipment to state and non-
warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the
state actors, including designated terrorist organizations.…
purpose of the United Nations Register of Arms [ballistic or
Although some Iranian shipments have been interdicted,
cruise missiles capable of delivering a warhead or weapon
Tehran is often able to get high-priority arms transfers to its
of destruction to a range of at least 16 miles] or related
customers. [See Figure 1.] Over the years, Iranian transfers
materiel, including spare parts….” The Security Council
to state and non-state actors have included communications
can waive the restrictions on a “case-by-case basis,” but has
equipment; small arms—such as assault rifles, sniper rifles,
not done so, to date. The ban expires on the earlier of (1)
machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades
five years after the JCPOA “Adoption Day” (ie: October
(RPGs)—and ammunition; … artillery systems, including
18, 2020), or (2) upon the issuing by the International
MRLs (multiple rocket launchers) and battlefield rockets
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of a “Broader Conclusion”
and launchers; armored vehicles; FAC (fast attack craft);
that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful
equipment for unmanned explosives boats; … SAMs
(surface-to-air missiles); UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)
… ground-attack aircraft …” and other weaponry. A June
U.S. and other Security Council member officials interpret
2020 report by the U.N. Secretary General on
the restriction as inapplicable to the sale to Iran of purely
implementation of Resolution 2231 assessed that Iran
defensive systems. In 2016, Russia delivered to Iran the S-
attempted to export weaponry and missile parts to Houthi
300 air defense system, which a State Department
forces in Yemen, and U.S. and allied forces have
spokesperson described as “…not formally a violation [of
intercepted some of those shipments. See CRS Report
2231] because the S-300 is for defensive uses only.”
R44017, Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies, by Kenneth

U.N. Ban on Iran Arms Transfers and Sanctions Snapback
Relevant Laws, Authorities, and Options
would reimpose the suspended sanctions. The U.S.
for the Administration and Congress
assertion of its ability to trigger the snap back is based on a
Trump Administration stated policy is to apply “maximum
State Department legal interpretation of Resolution 2231
pressure” on Iran to compel it to alter its behavior. The
that the U.S. status as a “participant,” for the purpose of the
Administration cited the schedule expiration of the arms
sanctions snap back, exists independently of the JCPOA.
transfer ban as among the flaws in the JCPOA that justified
the U.S. exit from it in May 2018. At a U.N. Security
Governments of European countries, Russia, and China
Council meeting on June 30, 2020, Secretary of State
asserted that the United States could not claim standing to
Michael Pompeo said: “Don’t just take it from the United
trigger the snap back. On August 16, EU foreign policy
States, listen to countries in the region. From Israel to the
chief Josep Borrell said “Given that the US unilaterally
Gulf, countries in the Middle East—who are most exposed
withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and has not
to Iran’s predations—are speaking with one voice: Extend
participated in any JCPOA structures or activities
the arms embargo.” A May 4, 2020 letter, signed by 387
subsequently, the US cannot be considered as a JCPOA
House Members, “urge[s] increased diplomatic action by
participant. We therefore consider that the US is not in a
the United States to renew the expiring United Nations
position to resort to mechanisms reserved for JCPOA
arms embargo against Iran….”
participants [such as the so-called snapback].”
Figure 2. Iran Military Structure and Size Estimates
Despite the opposition, Secretary of State Pompeo met on
August 20 with the U.N. Security Council presidency, held
in August by Indonesia, to deliver the formal U.S.
complaint that Iran is in material breach of the JCPOA and
that all U.N. sanctions should snap back. The next day, 13
of the 15 Security Council members wrote letters to the
Indonesian rotating Council presidency asserting that the
United States does not have standing to implement the
snapback. On that basis, Indonesia refused to circulate the
draft resolution maintaining sanctions relief. Nonetheless,
on September 19, Secretary of State Pompeo declared that
the United States considers all U.N. sanctions to be back
into effect, stating: “the United States expects all UN
Member States to fully comply with their obligations to
implement these measures. If U.N. Member States fail to
Source: Defense Intel igence Agency. Iran Military Power: 2019.
fulfill their obligations to implement these sanctions, the
United States is prepared to use our domestic authorities to
The DIA report, cited above, states “Iran’s potential
impose consequences for those failures and ensure that Iran
acquisitions after the lifting of UNSCR 2231 restrictions
does not reap the benefits of U.N.-prohibited activity.”
include Russian Su-30 fighters, Yak-130 trainers, and T-90
U.S. allies in Europe, as well as the broader Security
MBTs (main battle tanks). Iran has also shown interest in
Council and United Nations, consider that the status of U.N.
acquiring S-400 air defense systems and Bastian coastal
defense systems from Russia.”
sanctions is unchanged, and that the arms transfer ban will
On June 23, 2020, Secretary
expire as originally scheduled on October 18. In a joint
Pompeo posted this Twitter message: “If the U.N. Arms
letter of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany stated
Embargo on Iran expires in October, Iran will be able to
that: “
buy new fighter aircraft like Russia’s SU
Any decisions and actions which would be taken
-30 and China’s J-
based on this procedure or on its possible outcome would
10. With these highly lethal aircraft, Europe and Asia could
also be devoid of any legal effect.”
be in Iran’s crosshairs.”
It is not clear what
Iran’s force is depicted in Figure 2.
entity or person might adjudicate the dispute. Claiming that
there is “uncertainty” whether the sanctions snap back is in
In August 2020, the United States circulated a draft U.N.
effect, on September 19, U.N. Secretary General Antonio
Security Council resolution that would extend the arms
Guterres said he would not provide U.N. support to the
transfer ban “until the Security Council decides otherwise.”
Security Council that would be needed to implement a
On August 14, the United States and the Dominican
reimposition of U.N. sanctions.
Republic voted in favor, but Russia and China voted against
it and the remaining eleven Council members abstained.
Fulfilling the claim that the United States would act
unilaterally to prevent new arms sales to Iran, on September
The Trump Administration called the U.N. vote
21, the President issued Executive Order 13949 blocking
“inexcusable,” and President Trump stated that the United
the U.S. property of any entity that sells arms to Iran or
States would invoke a snapback of all U.N. sanctions that
brokers or facilitates such a transaction. The provisions of
were lifted upon implementation of the JCPOA, including
the Order are similar to, but somewhat broader, than those
the arms transfer ban. Under Resolution 2231, a JCPOA
of Section 107 of the Countering America’s Adversaries
“participant” can after notifying the Security Council of an
through Sanctions Act (P.L. 115-44). Other authorities that
issue that the government “believes constitutes significant
could be used include: the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation
non-performance of [JCPOA] commitments,” trigger
Act, the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act
(within 30 days) an automatic draft resolution keeping
(INKSNA), Executive Order 13382, and Iran’s designation
sanctions relief in effect. A U.S. veto of this resolution
as a state sponsor of terrorism. Alternatively, the United

U.N. Ban on Iran Arms Transfers and Sanctions Snapback
States might bilaterally negotiate with potential arms sellers
Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
to Iran to dissuade them from completing any sales to Iran.

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