Iranian President Hassan Rouhani celebrated the recent end of a UN arms embargo today during his weekly cabinet meeting. In Tehran, Rouhani lashed out at the US for "bullying" the Iranian government through sanctions and embargoes, saying: “The American plans got foiled on Sunday.”
The UN arms embargo, imposed in 2007, banned the export of "certain conventional arms to Iran", such as tanks and fighter jets. Its expiry has opened a legal pathway for Tehran to buy military equipment from Russia and China, allowing the country to rejuvenate its domestic air defence system after decades of economic sanctions and international pressure.
The expiration also dealt a diplomatic blow to the Trump administration: the US twice failed to convince the UN to extend the embargo, with just one country – Dominica – backing its proposed resolution.
While Iran is unlikely to go on an arms spending spree, due to the coronavirus and the country’s sanctions-inflicted economic crisis, the end of the embargo is likely to have implications for Iran's relations with the west and what little remains of the Obama-era 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018.
On Tuesday, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif tried to assure members of the UN Security Council, saying, "Iran does not intend to engage in an arms race in the region and start a buying spree in spite of the end of Security Council restrictions."
Russia and China, both members of the group that brokered the landmark 2015 nuclear deal – in which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions – will also welcome the end of the embargo, as it allows them to sell weapons to Iran.
Today, Rouhani said, “There was a time when our friends, China and Russia, were forced to side with our enemies [the United States], but these days we see that they are with us.”
In 2016, the Russian government estimated Iranian demand for Russian military hardware at $10 billion. Negotiations were opened to buy the S-300 missile system, but stalled as the nuclear deal broke down amid concerns over Tehran's ability to pay for installation and maintenance as its economy plummeted.
The embargo's end will also allow Iran to sell its locally produced light weapons and military gear, but no potential buyers have publicly stepped forward yet, perhaps fearful of repercussions from the US.
Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned any country against selling weapons to Iran.
"The United States is prepared to use its domestic authorities to sanction any individual or entity that materially contributes to the supply, sale or transfer of conventional arms to or from Iran,” he said, “as well as those who provide technical training, financial support and services, and other assistance related to these arms.”
On Monday, Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, blasted Pompeo's remarks, saying they were “utterly unjustifiable”.
"It is the US that peddles arms and ammunition everywhere, uses military trade to serve geopolitical interests, and even openly interferes in the internal affairs of other countries," he added.
On state television, General Amir Hatami, the Iranian defence minister, emphasised the importance of Iran's self-reliance, referring to the fact his country currently "relies primarily on its own military capabilities" and "produces 90 percent of our defence needs locally".
He added that “a number of countries” have reached out to Iran for arms deals already, but did not specify which ones.