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America’s Iran strategy takes a heavy hit

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An Iranian military truck carries parts of a S-300 air defence missile system during a parade on the country's annual army day on April 18, 2018, in Tehran.

Tehran in a statement on Sunday by its Foreign Ministry described October 18, 2020, as a “momentous day,” marking the termination of the United Nations Security Council’s arms restrictions and travel bans on Iran.  

Indeed, with effect from Sunday, under UNSC Resolution 2231 on the 2015 nuclear deal, “all restrictions on the transfer of arms, related activities and financial services to and from … Iran, and all prohibitions regarding the entry into or transit through territories of the United Nations Member States previously imposed on a number of Iranian citizens and military officials, are all automatically terminated.” 

Tehran’s strategy to negotiate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, knowing the US might violate it, is paying off. Despite all provocations by the US to force Iran to quit the deal, it held on tenaciously.

Tehran saw advantages in fulfilling its commitments under the JCPOA until the 2025 timeline when the UN is due to close the Iran nuclear file.

Meanwhile, Iran now looks forward to a similar termination of missile-related restrictions in 2023 before the final Termination Day on October 18, 2025, when all restrictions on Iran will be lifted, including the European Union’s remaining sanctions. 

In the phraseology of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, “Termination Day [October 18, 2025] shall not occur if the provisions of previous resolutions have been reinstated in the interim through the mechanism set forth in the [2031] resolution.”  

But it is improbable that Russia and China will allow any move to reinstate the UN sanctions against Iran. This means that all Iran needs to do is not to cross any red lines stipulated in the 2015 JCPOA. 

This is acceptable. Self-restraint under provocations is the leitmotif of Iran’s diplomacy. Besides, the seductive hope remains insofar as in another three years, Iran can develop its missile capabilities optimally and two years thereafter, it can regain all the privileges of any other NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) member country to pursue its nuclear program.

It is within these parameters that Tehran intends selectively to exercise its prerogative to procure arms from abroad – “solely based on its defensive needs” – or to export weaponry – “based on its own policies.” 

The Foreign Ministry statement underscores that “Iran has provided for its defensive needs through indigenous capacities and capabilities. This doctrine has been and will continue to be the principal driver …” 

Iran is estimated to meet up to 80% of its defense needs indigenously. But that is not the whole point here. 

Iran is also taking a principled stance that no other Middle Eastern country can emulate. Besides, this stance is tantamount to a scathing indictment of the US, which is fueling tensions to promote arms sales in the region. 

On the other hand, the roof is not going to come down after October 18. The US was plainly lying on the world stage. 

Tehran is messaging that it will behave as a responsible regional power whose defense build-up only aims at acquiring deterrence against aggression. Possibly, this nuanced stance is also with an eye on a likely Joe Biden presidency in the US.

Tehran has been closely consulting Moscow on the nuclear issue. Moscow appears to have been aware of the Iranian stance. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was ready with a structured reaction. 

Ryabkov brushed aside the Donald Trump administration’s threat to impose sanctions against Russia if it sold weapons to Iran. He commented that Russia was developing all-around cooperation with Iran and “cooperation in the military-technical sphere will proceed depending on needs of the parties and mutual readiness to such cooperation in a calm fashion.”

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif

 The Russian stance effectively proclaims that the US does not really have a military option against Iran any more. Given the deepening Russia-Iran mutual understanding, it is not in Moscow’s interests to allow a US attack on Iran. 

Russia can always calibrate the transfer of military technology to Iran in such a way that any US attack on Iran becomes prohibitively expensive. 

However, we haven’t heard the last word from Tehran as regards its capacity to export arms and military technology, which is considerable. To be sure, Iran needs to generate income from all available forms of exports. 

A senior Iranian diplomat at the UN told Newsweek: “Iran has many friends and trading partners, and has a robust domestic arms industry to ensure its defense requirements against foreign aggression … Naturally, from that [October 18] date, we’ll trade, on the basis of our national interests, with other countries in this field.”

Equally, the expression “our national interests” must be properly understood. If President Trump insists on making money by selling fancy stuff like F-15 jets to some Gulf Arab states, which they really don’t need, there may be a price to pay elsewhere. 

Second, trust Iran to integrate its arms sales judiciously, admissible under international law, into its regional strategy and as a template of its foreign policies – be it in the Middle East, Latin America or Africa. 

Tehran may just have acquired the means, finally, to inflict pain on the US if it proceeds with the “maximum pressure” strategy. Washington’s latitude to weaponize sanctions against Iran is ending. 

(M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.)