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The Importance of Ending the Arms Embargo: What Is Iran’s Plan?

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Lifting or extending the UN arms embargo on Iran, which according to SC Resolution 2231 is supposed to be ended in October 2020, has led to a new confrontation between Tehran and Washington. The US has circulated a draft UN resolution that would extend the embargo, and Secretary Pompeo vowed to use all means available to do so. In case of failure, Washington has threatened to trigger the so-called “snapback” mechanism deal to return all UN sanctions on Iran. At the same time, most of the US House urges more diplomacy to renew the Iran arms embargo.

According to Washington, lifting the embargo will lead to arms competition and instability in the Middle East. Denying this charge, Iran, under Resolution 2231, considers it its right to lift the embargo and blames the US as the leading cause of instability in the region. Iran’s FM, Mohammad Javad Zarif, emphasizes that “the US has long been the world’s top military spender, arms seller, war initiator and instigator, as well as conflict profiteer. Yet Secretary Pompeo is apparently so worried about Iran that it’s stationing weapons all over the globe.”

In this regard, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned of Iran’s “crushing response”. Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Ali Shamkhani, warned that the nuclear deal would “die forever” should the arms embargo be further extended. The chairman of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mojtaba Zolnoori, declared that such a situation could lead to a series of consequences, including the collapse of the JCPOA, stopping the implementation of the Additional Protocol, or even the withdrawal from NPT.

Iranian authorities’ harsh response shows that Iran’s goals and the decision to lift the country’s arms embargo go beyond the scope of buying or selling weapons. The first goal is political, namely, to thwart the Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy. Iran’s containment and an embargo extension are also to be considered as part of the US strategy. In this regard, the US’s success in extending the embargo would also mean the success of that strategy, while its failure would demonstrate the weakening of the latter. Accordingly, Iran is to use the opportunity to strengthen its political position and weaken the “maximum pressure” strategy by delegitimating US efforts to extend the embargo.

The second goal is economical and relates to breaking the sanctions’ structure. If the arms embargo is not extended, there will be a rift in the sanctions’ structure. Consequently, Iran will enter a new era of reducing restrictions and will possibly be able to reap more benefits from JCPOA. In this case, lifting restrictions in the next stages in 2023, 2025, and 2030 will be done more efficiently. Buying and selling weapons will facilitate trade in other areas too.

The third goal is linked to the military, which is to strengthen balance and deterrence by providing advanced weapons and developing military cooperation. Although Iran has improved its military capabilities in recent years, especially in the field of missiles and drones, there is still an urgent need for development.

The fourth goal aims to develop, through arms interactions, military-political cooperation with countries such as Russia, China, as well as others in the region. Iran, Russia, and China held joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman late last year. Furthermore, Iran-Russia military cooperation in Syria and Iran’s security-military cooperation with Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are additional examples of military cooperation, which can be improved through arms interactions.

The fifth goal is to develop Iran’s regional influence through the support of its proxies, relying on advanced weapons bought, and selling its own weapons. In general, improving Iran’s military capabilities and deterrence by new weapons and military technologies will be effective in strengthening its regional position and its proxies and allies’ position in the region.

Naturally, Iran needs international political and arms support to achieve these goals and thwart US efforts to extend the arms embargo. Russia and China are two powers that Iran is counting on, and it will not be easy for the US to take on these two countries together with Iran. Meanwhile, for various reasons, Russia can be more helpful for Iran than any other country.

Firstly, politically, Russia, and Russian officials, from FM Lavrov to Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov and Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Director Vladimir Ermakov, have repeatedly opposed US pressure on Iran and its plan to extend arms embargo. The opposition also echoed in the Russian Foreign Ministry statement on March 3, stressing that there is no reason to raise the issue of extending Iran’s arms embargo to the Security Council.

Secondly, Iran and Russia have a history of arms-military cooperation. Iran has previously received various Russian weapons, such as S-300 systems, and the two countries have also worked closely in Syria. They have different security and military agreements, including countering terrorism and regional cooperation and have held joint drills in the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. This collaboration shows their willingness to develop relations.

Thirdly, Iran and Russia’s geopolitical views on regional stability and security, as well as the need to strengthen balance and deterrence against the US, are consistent. As an anti-US force in the region and on Russia’s southern borders, Iran serves Moscow’s interests. Therefore, helping Iran, through supplying weapons to stand up to the US, is, in fact, an aid to Russia’s interests.

Finally, Iran has repeatedly stated its interest in acquiring Russian weapons, and Russia wants to take advantage of Iran’s need for military modernization. Buying weapons will increase Iran’s dependence on Russia while, at the same time, economically benefit Russia greatly. Additionally, Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter, could use the opportunity to improve its position in the world arms market by taking advantage of Iran’s significant arms needs.

On the other hand, although China has provided assistance to Iran several times in relation to sanctions pressure, the country has, at the same time, shown its reluctancy to take risks. For example, China has recently reduced trade and oil purchases from Iran following US pressure. It is thus likely, for Beijing, to repeat this behavior, especially when it comes to sensitive areas, such that of selling military equipment to Iran. Accordingly, although China is more inclined to oppose the US politically, it is still quite unlikely for the country to enter major arms trade with Iran. Conversely, though, Iran’s vast arms market could be tempting for Beijing, improving its position among the world’s arms exporters.

Iran has little hope that European powers will prove themselves to be helpful. On the one hand, EU members are concerned about Iran’s regional activities and Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and on the other, Brussels appears to be dissatisfied with Trump’s unilateral policies. Iran’s previous experience in negotiations with European powers to save JCPOA, lift sanctions, and the INSTEX suggests for them to be on the US’s side eventually. The only thing that can bring Europe closer to Iran is the fear of JCPOA’s death, but it seems that even this critical issue will not change Europe’s behavior. Thus the answer to Shamkhani’s question about whether or not Europe should “save dignity and support multilateralism or accept humiliation and help unilateralism?” is clear to Iran.

Regarding arms purchases, if the embargo is lifted, it should be noted that although Russia is Iran’s primary option, it will try to meet its arms needs from various countries, like China, to prevent becoming too heavily dependent on Russia. Iran’s primary need is to strengthen its air force, air defense systems, naval defense, and radar and electronic warfare systems. Due to the concern of countries/companies exporting weapons about sanctions and the secrecy of arms trades, accurate information about Iran’s requested weapons is not available.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that Iran is seeking to purchase Sukhoi fighters (35, 30SM and 27SM-3 models), MiG fighters, air defense systems such as S-400, Bastion Coastal Defense Missile System and the T-90 tank from Russia. Iran has also reportedly held talks with China to buy the G-10C fighter, the FD-2000 air defense missile systems, the LY-80 systems, and the automatic air defense system.

According to Iran, Russia and China will be cautious about arms sales, as well as quite reluctant to confront the US. Moscow and Beijing know that the US is sensitive to this issue, and even if the arms embargo is lifted, the US will apply unilateral sanctions. Violating these sanctions, thus, would be highly costly for Russia and China. Therefore, they will not jeopardize their interests by engaging with Iran and confronting the US. Simultaneously, some interests, including strengthening of balance, increasing chips’ bargaining against the US, and taking advantage of Iran’s arms market, are likely to keep their motivation alive to sell arms to Tehran. One thing they can do is sign arms deals with Iran but postpone their delivery.

In addition to the US variable, other variables, including Iran’s regional competitors’ reaction, are essential for Moscow and Beijing. They have political, economic, and military ties with Arab countries as well as with Israel. The large sale of weapons to Iran could jeopardize their relations. On the other hand, the regional balance of power in the Middle East is essential for Russia and China, and they do not want to upset the existing balance by providing advanced weapons to Iran. These considerations make them more cautious.

Iran appears to be considering buying weapons from other countries, such as Pakistan or North Korea. It should be noted that this strategy has little to do with lifting or extending the embargo because, in any case, buying must be carried out without US knowledge.

It should also be noted that Iran will be particularly cautious about buying weapons, hence why the assumption that the country will make extensive purchases if the embargo is lifted doesn’t appear to be correct. Iran views the lifting of the embargo as a turning point in easing sanctions and delegitimating US policy. The reason lies in the fact that Iran is committed to making it clear to the international community that its goal only relates to the strengthening of balance and deterrence, and that the US’ view of Iranophobia is a lie. Iran is, at the same time, aware that radical behavior can put the international community against it.

Iran is also aware that Trump’s main goal is to force it to withdraw from JCPOA (in reaction to a possible extension of arms embargo), in order to put various powers, like Russia and China, on its side, against Iran. With this in mind, Iran is unlikely to engage in radical behavior, even if the embargo is extended.

While financing new arms purchases in the face of declining oil revenues due to sanctions and the global coronavirus clampdown seems difficult, Iran’s experience in circumventing sanctions and advancing its military plans under pressure shows that it can fix the problem.

In recent years, improving Iran’s military capabilities under sanctions in missiles and drones fields and electronic warfare, which were reflected in Iran’s attack on Ain al-Assad base, the downing of US drones and military action in Syria show that this process will continue, whether the embargo is lifted or not.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

China-Iran Deal and its implication for the region

Ashish Dangwal

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From the past few years, the increasing partnership between China and Iran has raised major concerns among many countries. Sinking economy and the recent COVID crisis pushed Iran into the corner and China timely manifested itself as a perfect partner for Iran. The diplomatic ties between these two countries were established in 1971 and over the years China’s demand for energy and Iran’s isolation from the international community brings them together. The recent investment and security pact covered almost every sector from Telecom, banking, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. Though the secret details of the pact were leaked but soon rejected by Iranian officials.

In 2016, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Iran and then laid the structure of this deal. Soon after in 2019, China announced its plan to invest $ 400 billion. Iran’s economy is suffering greatly because of the U.S.A sanctions and needs a lifeline to revive their domestic market. Where one side, most of the companies from different nations pulled out their businesses from Iran, On the other hand, Chinese investment can play a significant role in Iran’s survival. This partnership between these two nations directly challenges U.S.A efforts to cut off Iran from the international market arena. China’s ever-growing aspirations to increase its involvement in the Middle East perfectly sync with the geostrategic location of Tehran. However, Iran’s ambition to become a regional power needs huge investment in its domestic market. That’s where both countries see themselves as an emerging partner. 

China-Iran Economic Relationship

As a growing economy, China dependence on Iran’s oil is quite reasonable. Though this relationship is not just based on the energy, but even on the many different aspects. After 2016, China and Iran were agreed to increase their trading relations to $600 billion in the upcoming 10 years. The agreement was concordant with One Belt, One Road framework. A total of 17 agreements were signed, including one which relates to the Iran nuclear programme. The Chinese will help connect Tehran with Mashhad via their high-speed rail technology.  After the sanctions levied by the USA and other western countrieson Iran, its dependence on China increased in recent years. The trading relationship is not only limit to purchase of crude oil but even China’s involvement inIran’s upstream and downstream production processes through major investments.From 2005, both countries signed seven upstream production agreement with each other. All these agreements involve the state-owned Chinese companies, which shows the significant presence of China in Iran.

China-Iran-Syria Nexus

In December 2019, Syrian president while giving an interview to a Chinese media expressed his willingness to join the BRI project and projected Syria as a perfect partner for the Chinese investment. Syria suffered a lot because of the decades of war and wanted to start the reconstruction activities in their country. Iran and China identified themselves as the ally of Syria and they even wanted to make a strategic nexus between these countries. For the reconstruction process, China is helping Syria from Port of Tripoli by setting up it as a logistic base for the reconstruction process. China wanted to link this port with Syria’s “Four sea strategy” and connect the BRI project to the eastern Mediterranean area. This whole economic bloc could challenge the American hegemony in the region. Iran and Syria are already strategic allies in this region and by adding China in this situation, it would promote the autocratic rule in the region to counter America.

The implication for the Region

Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran pushed many countries like India and Japan to cut off the trading ties with Tehran. This was seen as the major diplomatic blunder made by the U.S.A because of the one very simple reason that these countries could play a major role to find the middle ground for the talks between Iran and the west.As claimed by the reports, China will increase its partnership to build the ports too, getting a port in the Persian Gulf will provide the major boost to Chinese strategic plans. If China successfully expands its presence in Iran then it will lead to the major conflict between the U.S.A and China. Though China has already invested heavily on the Gwadar port, it will not hesitate to gain an upper hand in the Persian Gulf. From where Beijing can keep its eye on U.S.A movements in the region. India’s investment progress in Iran was slow and that’s the reason recently Iran started the railway track construction work on its own.

The growing instability in the region will further escalate, as the partnership will grow between these countries. China’s ambitions to expand its BRI projects and Syria’s “Four seas strategy” can become a foundation for future projects in the whole region. Syrian President Bashar Assad has promoted this four seas strategy since 2009 that would transform the Damascus into a major trading hub. Syria wanted to form an economic space between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that will shape a new bloc of nations in the region. This plan includes the four seas of the region from the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, which makes easy for these nations from investment to transportation. 

The expanding partnership will lead to the architecture of a security structure between these three countries and will directly undermine the U.S.A presence in the region. The gradual consolidation of powers based on Anti-American and Anti-west sentiments can even form a proper security alliance where the inclusion of Turkey would be a possible scenario shortly. All these countries kind of having the same political regime one way or another, so for them it will be a great strategy to stop America’s presence from their domestic issues. If U.S.A wants to stop China’s involvement in the region, it needs to involve its key Asian partner, so that there will be some major power players in the region to maintain stability. 

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Are The U.S. And Its Partners Losing The Grip On Syria’s North East?

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The oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor located in Eastern Syria has witnessed another escalation between the local Arab populace and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Unexpectedly for the SDF and the U.S. military, the protesters have established control over a number of towns, and it seems they are willing to go further.

Sources close to the SDF initially reported that the protesters limited their demands by requesting a solution to a number of minor issues, but soon enough it became evident that it was not the case and the issue – and a major one – was the presence of SDF in the area. The demonstrators were quick to turn from chanting slogans to taking control of towns: in a single day they captured all of Shuhayl, Al-Hawayej, Diban and forced the SDF members to leave before blocking the roads.

The protests were sparked by a series of assassinations of influential leaders of Al-Aqidat and Al-Baqara tribes. Three Deir Ezzor sheikhs were killed in less than a week: Sheikh Suleiman Khalaf al-Kassar from Al-Aqidat was shot in Busayra village July 30. The next day Sheikh Suleiman Al-Weis who belonged to Al-Baqara was shot in the head by two gunmen on a motorcycle in Al-Dahla. Finally, Sheikh Muttshar al-Hamoud al-Hifl was shot in the outskirts of Al-Hawayej on Sunday, August 2. His relative Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl was also wounded in the incident but survived.

In a peculiar coincidence, a few weeks before the assassinations the tribal leaders were invited to a meeting with the SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi with the U.S. servicemen also present. The agenda reportedly included co-operation between the tribes and the SDF. It was reported that at least one of the victims, Muttshar al-Hifti, declined to participate and to engage with the Americans.

An insight into the details of these meetings can be gained through the reports about an oil deal allegedly struck by the SDF and a little known American oil developer Delta Crescent LLC. Delta Crescent was granted exclusive rights for production, refinement and export of the oil from Deir Ezzor fields potentially bringing the participants annual profit of hundreds of millions dollars, according to statements made by U.S. officials. The deal was met with harsh response from the Syrian government who labeled it a “deal between thieves”.

According to sources on the ground, the implication is that those who fell victim to the assassinations shared this view and opposed the deal. Their removal, however, has clearly failed to deliver the results intended by the masterminds behind their deaths, yet another time when the Kurds were thrown to the wolves by the U.S. who is accustomed to making their allies bear the consequences of the reckless pursuit of the American interests.

Meanwhile the SDF started to amass forces in the vicinity of the areas shaken by the unrest. The reinforcements sent from Al-Shadadi, Al-Sousa and Baghuz are gathering at the US military base near Al-Omar oil field. Moreover, two US Apache attack helicopters were spotted patrolling the area. These developments combined with lack of report on any negotiations between the protesters and the SDF leadership paint a grim picture, indicating that the SDF likely intends to use force to disperse the protests.

It is not the first time the SDF resorts to the use of force when faced with the discontent of the local populace in north-eastern Syria, although this approach had never brought the desired result. All areas affected by the protests have been subjected to dozens of raids of the SDF and the US special forces. Reports on these operations unfailingly mentioned arrests of ISIS terrorists. They failed to mention, however, what the Pentagon files under the category of “collateral damage” – deaths of civilians killed in the result of the actions of the US military and their allies.

The upheaval in Deir Ezzor is yet another evidence that the SDF, initially an independent movement, has degraded to a tool or a lever of American influence in Syria, and now finds itself fighting consequences instead of locating the root cause of the unrest – widespread corruption among the officials of the Kurdish administration and dramatic deterioration of the living conditions.

The regional turbulence created by Washington’s constantly shifting stance – or rather a lack of stance – on Syria has grown so strong it finally turned against the American interests. The latest escalation in Deir Ezzor should be considered nothing but a byproduct of this ill-designed policy and, perhaps, marks a beginning of the end of the US and SDF hegemony in Syria’s North East.

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The Looming Disaster of the Safer Oil Tanker Moored off the Coast of Yemen

Amb. Sahar Ghanem

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Amidst the raging conflict in Yemen, the challenge of the Safer Oil Tanker emerges as one of the most hazardous risks to the environment safety in the Red Sea as a result of the potential oil spillage in the Red Sea at any moment.

Following expressing deep alarm, the United Nations Security Council called on 29 June,2020, to immediately grant unconditional access for the United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition without overdue to prevent growing risk of possible rupture, explosion or even spillage.

The threat of the floating Oil Tanker, moored off the coast of Yemen, does not only impose challenges to the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Red Sea, but it rather represents a huge challenge that threatens the environment safety, leading to one of the largest environmental hazards in the world, after the unforgettable 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Siberia – Russia.

On 18 July 2019, the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator Mr. Mark Lowcock informed the UN Security Council of the growing threats of the deserted Safar Oil Tanker, warning of possible explosion or leakage of its loads [1.14 M barrels of crude oil]. In his briefing on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, he pointed out that such an incident would result to a disastrous crisis to the marine life in the Red Sea and maritime in the straits of Bab-Al Madeb and Suez Canal which are two significant water corridors to the world.

It is known that the Red Sea is home for some scarce invertebrates such as corals and 600 species of fish. Unless preventative measures are taken now and immediately to prevent oil spill or possible tanker explosion, we will concretely witness a disastrous incident leading to severe effect on the Red Sea marine environment, and on both biodiversity and livelihoods starting from Yemen and extending north to Suez Canal through Jobal strait and the Gulf of Suez and south through Bab-Al Madeb strait reaching even Hormoz strait through the Arabian sea.

Environment experts’ projections expect that 115 islands are vulnerable to the risk of oil pollution; 126,000 fishermen will lose their source of income, among them 76,000 fishmen are in Al Hodeidah governorate; 850 tons of fish stocks will be exposed to the danger of contamination and death in Yemen, in the Red Sea and in Bab Al-Mandam; more than 500 fish species are at high risk of disappearing; and 300 corals will certainly disappear as a result.

The problem emerged following the takeover of the Capital Sanaa on 21 September 2014, when Houthi militias implemented unilateral actions inter alia dissolving parliament and taking over Yemen’s government institutions, which have seriously escalated the situation, leading to illegitimate seizure of power “coup d’etat”, and eventually leading to current conflict in Yemen.

The floating storage and its connected offloading terminals have not been inspected or maintained since 2015 after Houthis militias took control of the area including port of Ras Isa to which the floating tanker is connected by terminals extending 9km off the coast of Yemen.

Yemen’s internationally-recognized government has warned in many letters of evident corrosion and lack of maintenance, creating the conditions for serious environmental disaster. The Yemeni government made an urgent call for the UN to send inspection team to scale the risks.

Unfortunately, the UN inspection team was denied access to the floating tanker by the Houthi militias many times. The UN inspection team is tasked with the mission to provide the necessary inspection and put recommendations for the needed maintenance and continuing to create obstacles will refrain the team from reaching the tanker and delivering the urgent inspection.

Lately, the Government of the Republic of Yemen repeated asserting the urgent emergency of the imminent catastrophe of the floating “Safer Oil Tanker”. The government confirmed that “given the critical nature of the aging floating tanker’s situation, on 27 May 2020 leaks have been reported in the tanker causing water leaked into the tanker’s operational machineries raising the possibilities of the tanker rupturing, sinking or even exploding.

Despite urgent fixing of leaking occurred, the deteriorating situation of the tanker threatens continuing eroding. As a result, on 15 July 2020, the UNSC held a session to debate latest urgent developments and called for urgent response to be taken by the Houthi militias as required by the inspection team. It is worth mentioning that the Houthis always show willingness to accept the inspection team just like the assurances made by the Houthis in August 2019 only to be withdrawn right before the inspection team was due to board the tanker.

The Yemeni government has always approved all relevant initiatives recommended by the UN to allow addressing the serious matter and proposing necessary urgent solutions to the Safer oil tanker, as part of the responsibility to the humanitarian and economic measures proposed by the office of the UN Special Envoy Mr. Martin Griffiths and as part of its responsibility to building and sustaining environment safety; however, the Houthi militias continue refusing to allow permissions to the UN inspection team to visit the oil tanker, noting that the situation of the Safer oil tanker is becoming extremely critical more than ever, causing increasing threats of possible oil spillage, tanker sinking and explosion at any moment.

In conclusion, the Safer Oil Tanker is a floating time-bomb and allowing inspection and maintains is the only possible means that will stop a serious catastrophe from happening. If incidents of explosion or even oil spill occur, that will lead to one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the Red Sea. Action must be taken immediately while we have in hand an opportunity to protect the environments and spare the lives of millions of people in Yemen and the region from a looming tragedy.

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