U.S. Vows to Block New Russian Arms Sale to Iran

Iranian missile system purchase not banned by nuke deal

A Su-30SM aircraft / AP
April 6, 2016

The Obama administration is vowing to stop Russia from selling to Iran advanced fighter jets, saying that such sales would violate United Nations resolutions governing the comprehensive nuclear agreement, according to comments by a top State Department official to the Washington Free Beacon.

State Department Spokesman Mark Toner told the Free Beacon in a statement on Wednesday that the United States is opposed to Russia selling Iran a cadre of advanced Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jets.

These sales do not directly violate the nuclear agreement signed last summer by Iran and global powers, according to officials, who explained that the sales are instead in violation of a U.N. resolution overseeing the deal.

Toner’s remarks come just a day after another top State Department official informed Congress that the administration views these arms sales as a violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution governing the nuclear agreement.

However, the administration does not view a separate sale by Russia to Iran of an advanced missile defense system as breaching the agreement, according to a State Department official.

The issue of Russian arms sales to Iran has become a diplomatic hot button in recent months, as Moscow seeks to increase its military relationship with Tehran following the implementation of the nuclear agreement.

"In terms of the specific reports about the proposed sale of the Sukhoi Su-30SM multi-role fighter jets, for example, we would almost certainly veto such a sale, as provision of such equipment to Iran would further exacerbate existing tensions in the region," Toner told the Free Beacon in a statement.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which oversees the nuclear deal, "prohibits the sale to Iran of specified categories of conventional arms as defined for the purposes of the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms, without approval in advance on a case-by-case basis by the U.N. Security Council," Toner explained.

This "includes the Su-30SM fighter," he said.

The administration says it is tracking multiple reports of upcoming Russian arms sales to Iran and will express any concerns "through the appropriate channels, whether bilaterally with Russia or at the UN if ‎any specific transaction violates any U.N. Security Council resolutions," Toner said.

The Obama administration has reservations about a separate Russian sale to Iran of the advanced S-300 missile system, which fires ground-to-air missiles. The sale is permitted under U.N. resolutions because it is considered a defensive weapon, according to the State Department.

The nuclear agreement itself "deals strictly with Iran’s nuclear program and does not deal with anything else, including arms sales or missile tests," a second State Department source, who was not authorized to speak on record, told the Free Beacon.

"U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 includes the restrictions on arms sales to and from Iran as well as restrictions on Iran’s missile program," the official said.  "So a proposed sale of the Su30 fighter jet, for example, would have to be brought before the Security Council for a vote, per Resolution 2231, and as we have aid, we would almost certainly veto such a sale."

This type of sale "would be a violation of UNSCR 2231, [but] not a violation of the" actual nuclear deal, the official said.

The S-300 sales "would not be a violation" of the U.N. resolution because ground-to-air missile systems do not fall under the international body’s purview, the source said.

Though it is not a violation of the nuclear deal or U.N. resolution 2231, the administration has expressed opposition to the S-300 sale.

Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, told lawmakers on Tuesday that it has raised concerns about the S-300 transaction.

"Russia has been in the process of selling S-300s to Iran since 2008," Shannon said in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We have made it very clear to the Russians that we consider this to be a bad move, to be destabilizing and is not in keeping with what we’ve been trying to accomplish" with Iran.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the Obama administration's continued opposition to the sale by Russia of an advanced missile to Iran.