Iranian officials have hailed the lifting of a 13-year UN arms embargo on their military as a momentous day, claiming they were once again free to buy and sell conventional weapons in an effort to strengthen their country’s security.
The embargo was lifted on Sunday morning despite US protests and was in line with the five-year timetable set out in the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015.
Russia and China are the two countries now most likely to offer arms to Tehran, making Iran less dependent on its own weapons industry – and smuggling.
But Iran’s parlous financial state, and continued threat of US sanctions on anyone trading with the country, means Tehran is unlikely to go on a short-term buying spree, or reach anything like the defence spending levels of its chief Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Iranian foreign ministry said: “As of today, all restrictions on the transfer of arms, related activities and financial services to and from the Islamic Republic of Iran … are all automatically terminated.”
The foreign minister described the day as momentous and put the event in a diplomatic as much as a military context. “Today’s normalisation of Iran’s defence cooperation with world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region,” said Javad Zarif.
However, the defence ministry said “unconventional arms, weapons of mass destruction and a buying spree of conventional arms” had no place in the country’s defence doctrine.
The European Union and the UK are to maintain a separate arms embargo on Iran despite the lifting on the UN one.
In the summer, France, Germany and the UK rejected US efforts to impose a snapback of all UN sanctions on Iran, fearing Tehran would pull out altogether from joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPoA), the official name for the 2015 deal. The three European powers believe the JCPoA is still holding Iran back from becoming a military nuclear power, the deal’s primary purpose.
The JCPoA included clauses that stipulated the lifting of the UN arms embargo five years after being signed on 15 October 2015. The European powers had hoped to negotiate a voluntary 18-month extension of the embargo, but were unable to persuade Russia and China to back the move at the UN security council.
The three European powers will now rely on an EU embargo, which was first introduced in 2007, and is set to continue until 2023. The embargo covers conventional weapons and missile technology.
But the US claims that by rejecting reimposition all UN sanctions, the EU has enabled the arming of Iranian terrorists. In a sign of strain being placed on transatlantic relations, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said in June that the European powers were putting the capitals of Europe in the cross hairs of Tehran.
Separate embargoes block Iranian sales to Lebanon, Yemen and Syria.
In theory Iran will now be free to purchase tanks, armoured combat vehicles and high-calibre artillery systems, warplanes and naval vessels without the need for further UN approval.
Iran has always been free to purchase purely defensive weapons, including, if it wished, the Russian-made S-400 air defence system. There are signs that Russia is anxious not only about sharing sensitive defence technology with Iran, but angering other Middle East customers such as the UAE.
Iran’s defence spending last year was about $18.4bn (£14.2bn) roughly 3.5% of the country’s GDP, although the precise value is contested. However, the Iranian economy has been hit recently by both Covid-19 and pressure from Washington on Tehran and those who seek to trade with Iran. The bulk of the defence spending is by the Revolutionary Guard, and Iran’s core military strength derives from a mix of proxy militias, cyber warfare, ballistic missiles and a large defensive army.
Defence experts predict that instead of buying large numbers of tanks or prohibitively expensive fighter jets, Iran is more likely to purchase small numbers of advanced weapons systems and attempt to transfer the technology domestically.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia spent almost $80bn on defence, the same as Iran spent over the previous four years combined, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.