Obama Admin Could Halt New Iran-Russia Weapons Deals

White House not expected to interfere

Sergei Shoigu, Hossein Dehghan
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan shake hands during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 16 / AP
February 18, 2016

The United States has the authority to block new multi-billion dollar arms deals between Iran and Russia though the administration is not expected to exercise this authority, which was granted under United Nations Security Council resolutions pertaining to the recently implemented nuclear agreement.

Senior Iranian and Russian officials held discussions this week about inking a new arms pact expected to be worth about $8 billion. Iran has reportedly sent Moscow a "shopping list" of various arms and military hardware it is seeking to purchase.

News of the latest deal—which comes in addition to several other Iranian-Russian arms deals inked over past months—drew ire from some on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers remain concerned that Iran is exploiting economic sanctions relief in order to carry out a massive military buildup.

Obama administration officials would not express an opinion on the latest arms deal, but told the Washington Free Beacon that it would formerly register any concerns should they arise in the future.

"We're aware of ongoing discussions between Russia and Iran regarding possible purchases of military equipment," a State Department official who was not authorized to speak on record told the Free Beacon in response to inquiries. "If we have concerns about specific transactions, we'll express those concerns through the appropriate channels, whether bilaterally with Russia or at the U.N. if ‎any specific transaction violates any U.N. Security Council resolutions."

However, critics of the administration’s outreach to Iran expressed skepticism. They maintain that the White House is turning a blind eye to Iranian violations of the nuclear accord in order to preserve diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic.

"The U.N. resolution to endorse the flawed Iran nuclear deal actually gives the United States and other members of the Security Council the power to review and legally block arms sales by Russia or other actors to Iran," Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), a critic of the nuclear accord, told the Free Beacon. "But as Russia and Iran further escalate their use of indiscriminate military force in the Middle East, the administration appears wholly unwilling to use this power."

According to the terms of the U.N. resolution governing the nuclear agreement, the U.S. and other Security Council members are provided with the power to approve "in advance on a case-by-case basis" most conventional arms sales to Iran.

The statute specifically applies to the "supply, sale, or transfer" to Iran of many conventional arms, including "battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles, or missile systems," according to the resolution.

Iran is reportedly seeking to purchase from Russia a new cadre of advanced Russian-made warplanes and other arms.

The provision requires the Security Council to individually approve the sale of these weapons for the next five years. Any member of the council has the right to veto a measure, meaning that the United States "could effectively block such a sale," according to Michael Singh, a former White House national security official who worked on the Iran portfolio.

"It appears that the Obama administration has the authority to block any sale of fighter aircraft to Iran," said Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "In pressing for the approval of the nuclear deal by Congress, the administration discussed these arms restrictions (and related missile restrictions) as de facto bans, there will certainly be an expectation that they would use that authority."

The U.N. measure also applies to arms manufacturing, meaning that the Security Council would also have to sign off on deals in which Iran agrees to domestically produce certain arms and aircraft parts.

"It is possible that Moscow and Tehran will try to pressure the U.S. and other P5 members to refrain from blocking the transaction, or that they are simply preparing the ground for deals that won’t take effect until the restrictions expire in five years, since major arms sales tend to take a long time to finalize," Singh said.

Others say that the Obama administration could potentially level new sanctions on both Russia and Iran to send them a message.

"The Obama administration could use its authority under UNSCR 2231 to object to Russian military sales to Iran and push for U.N. sanctions," Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Free Beacon. "It could impose U.S. sanctions on Russian entities involved in these sales. It has done none of these things and likely will not as it continues a disturbing pattern of turning a blind eye to Iranian violations of international and U.S. law."

Some insiders also took a critical view of the administration, saying that it is "too intimidated" to use the powers granted by the U.N. resolution.

"Supporters of the Iran deal boasted throughout the summer that the nuclear deal was a diplomatic victory because it had robust checks against Iranian cheating and aggression," said a senior official at a D.C.-based pro-Israel organization who is involved in the Iran deal debate.

"Critics of the deal insisted that the Obama administration would be too intimidated to ever use those mechanisms because then Iran would walk away from the deal," the source said. "This arms sale suggests the critics were right and that the deal supporters bamboozled Congress."

Update 3:57  p.m.: Following publication, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told the Free Beacon that the department is aware of the Russia-Iran arms deal.

"We’ve seen reports about discussions concerning the possible future sale by Russia to Iran of Sukhoi Su-30SM multi-role fighter jets," Toner said. "UN Security Council Resolution 2231 prohibits the sale to Iran of specified categories of conventional arms as defined for the purposes of the UN Register of Conventional Arms, without approval in advance on a case-by-case basis by the UN Security Council. Category IV of the UN Register covers 'combat aircraft,' which includes the Su-30SM fighter. All UN Member States, especially those that negotiated and presented UNSCR 2231 as part of the JCPOA process, should be fully aware of these restrictions. If the media reports are accurate, we will address it bilaterally with Russia and with the other Members of the UN Security Council."

Update 4:10 p.m.: Following publication, officials familiar with the situation said they expect the administration to be more forceful in raising concerns about these sales, particularly the transfer of advanced war jets.