Iran deal risks weakening arms embargo with removal of experts


As Congress mulls the Iran nuclear accord, one element emerging as a source of deep concern is how to enforce the ongoing embargo on Iran’s non-nuclear missiles.

For the past five years, an independent panel of experts has monitored Iran’s arms shipments. But the panel will be disbanded as a concession to Iran, according to three United Nations Security Council diplomats who asked not to be named, citing sensitivity of the matter.

While diplomats are searching for new mechanisms, it isn’t clear how violations will be tracked without the panel and whether punitive measures can be introduced on non-nuclear activities without derailing the nuclear deal, they said.

The arms embargo, the most stringent under the UN, was put in place in 2010 as punishment for Iran’s nuclear program.

“Not having a mechanism will create a lot of questions,” said Jim Walsh, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. “What you’ll see is informal multilateral cooperation, and individual countries can have their own arms embargoes.”

The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment. But two senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the panel of experts would disappear. They argued, however, that arms shipments to Iran could be monitored via spy satellites and other surveillance. They added that Iran would find it exceedingly difficult to overtake its neighbors in conventional weapons given its dilapidated equipment and the new weapons the U.S. is going to provide Israel and Gulf Arab states.

Final Rounds

During the final rounds of nuclear negotiations in Vienna last month, Iran, with the backing of Russia and China, demanded that all arms sanctions be lifted. The U.S., Britain, Germany and France argued for a five-year ban on sales of conventional arms to Iran and an eight-year restriction on its ballistic missile program.

Iran ultimately agreed to the limitations but on condition that the panel of experts be eliminated, according to the diplomats.

Meanwhile, a number of related issues remain open to interpretation, and as each side sells the accord to its legislators, their claims vary, sometimes sharply.

For example, an annex to the UN resolution states, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic-missile technology” for eight years.


Iran argues that the resolution absolves it of any restriction on its conventional missile purchases since the resolution refers to nuclear-capable missiles. This is “a non-binding” restriction, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told the country’s parliament on July 21.

“This paragraph speaks about missiles with nuclear-warhead capability, and since we don’t design any of our missiles for carrying nuclear weapons, this paragraph is not related to us at all,” Zarif said, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

That view was reinforced by Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament, who said Iran will pay no mind to the resolution on non-ballistic missiles.

Matthew McInnis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former defense department analyst, said he expects the Iranians to view restrictions “as not legally binding and unjust and will push back. This is concerning because minor violations or pushing the envelope will be ignored by the UN because people don’t want to rock the boat.”

Lack of Expertise

One solution some have suggested is that the UN secretary-general’s office issue a report twice a year, diplomats said. But experts countered that the secretariat lacks the expertise and member countries are reluctant to share intelligence with it.

Without the independent panel, violations could go unreported, said Afshon Ostovar, a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia.

“There is so much text to this agreement and so many different agencies involved that it’s difficult to know how the implementation is going to be enforced,” he said. Although Iran has reason to work within the deal, “there is a question of how we know if Iran is abiding or not abiding by the terms of the agreement.”

The UN Security Council began creating panels of experts in the mid-1990s as international sanctions became more complex.

The experts come with specialized backgrounds in proliferation, finance, export control, missile technology, maritime transportation and customs. They not only analyze information on sanctions violation but also train governments on implementation, monitoring and best practices.

Non-Nuclear Concerns

Many of Iran’s neighbors say its non-nuclear arms are as big if not a bigger concern for them than its nuclear ones, according to Michael Singh, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute think tank and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the White House.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed-services committee on July 30 that there are at least “five malign activities which give us and our regional partners concern,” including the pursuit of ballistic-missile technology, weapons trafficking, the use of surrogates and proxies, the use of naval mines and undersea activity.

“Lifting an arms embargo against Iran in five years is bad enough because of Iran’s regional behavior of sending arms to proxies like Hezbollah, Hamas and so on,” Singh said. “In the region, the lifting of an arms and missile embargo is seen as more serious than the nuclear issue.”