National Security

Looming Middle East Arms Race Sparks Fear of Unprecedented Regional War

Armed by Russia and China, Iran poses historic security threat, sources say

An Iranian military truck carries parts of a S-300 air defense missile system during a parade
An Iranian military truck carries parts of a S-300 air defense missile system during a parade / Getty Images

The impending expiration of an international weapons ban on Iran threatens to flood the Middle East with high-tech Russian and Chinese military equipment, a situation that senior Trump administration officials warn will spark an arms race and could ignite a massive regional war.

A United Nations ban on the sale of weapons to Iran is set to expire in mid-October despite a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to renew it. Senior U.S. officials involved in regional discussions told the Washington Free Beacon that Israel and its traditional Arab foes are united in opposition to the arms embargo lifting.

Without the arms ban, Russia and China are poised to bolster their already close military alliances with Iran, selling the country stockpiles of advanced weapons that will be available to the Islamic Republic's terror proxy groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both countries have sold Tehran arms in the past—including aiding its nuclear endeavors—and have been clear in recent months about their desire to amplify the relationship. The Trump administration is trying to block this outcome by invoking a mechanism known as snapback that was written into the nuclear deal. Snapback would reapply a litany of international sanctions on Iran and also ensure the arms ban remains in place.

"Letting the arms embargo expire would set off an arms race in the Middle East," Brian Hook, who served as the administration’s top Iran envoy, told the Free Beacon following a fresh round of meetings this week with Israel and Gulf Arab leaders. "I have heard that repeatedly from Gulf leaders and Israel during this trip. The permanent members of the Security Council dismissed the request from all six Gulf nations and Israel to extend the arms embargo and add new sanctions on Iran. The council failed."

Hook vowed the United States would "do the right thing and restore U.N. sanctions on Iran—and that includes the arms embargo."

However, the likelihood of reapplying all international sanctions on Iran remains unclear. European nations have already rejected the United States' bid to indefinitely extend the arms embargo and are now opposing further efforts to restore all sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the 2015 nuclear agreement. The stalemate at the U.N. Security Council has decimated the United States' historically close relationship with France, Germany, and the U.K. and could prompt the Trump administration to diplomatically retaliate against these nations, the Free Beacon reported on Thursday.

"If the arms embargo on the Islamic Republic of Iran lapses, military planners in Washington, Jerusalem, and Arab capitals should assume that they will soon be confronting more formidable Iranian military and proxy forces," Bradley Bowman, a former national security adviser in the U.S. Senate, told the Free Beacon. Bowman currently serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a D.C.-based think-tank.

Iran’s terror affiliates stand the most to gain from these looming arms deals. Tehran has troops stationed across the region and has been a primary irritant in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq—all countries in which Iran has spent significant resources arming anti-U.S. forces.

These terrorist factions "will more easily acquire advanced weapons systems that will exacerbate regional conflicts and encourage a regional arms race," according to information compiled by Norman Roule, who served as the national intelligence manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from 2008 until 2017.

As Iran suffers under the weight of U.S. economic sanctions, it has struggled to update its aging weapons systems and military equipment. If the international arms ban is lifted, Tehran will seek advanced Russian and Chinese fighter jets, battle tanks, and air defense systems, according to Roule, a senior adviser to United Against a Nuclear Iran, which tracks Tehran’s procurements. U.S. intelligence services have made similar assessments in recent years.

The threat posed by a well-armed Iran has pushed Israel and its regional foes into a closer alliance, as evidenced by the United Arab Emirates’ historic peace deal with Israel earlier this year. Iran is a top priority for all of these countries, and they are likely to work together in combating the increased threat.

"The U.S., Israel, and Arab partners should look for prudent opportunities to increase joint and combined military capability to deter and punish additional aggression and terrorism from Tehran," said FDD’s Bowman. The U.S., Israel, and the UAE, for instance, could begin annual military exercises "focused on building readiness, trust, and interoperability."