June 18, 2020 — Brussels, Belgium
This piece originally appeared in Newsweek.
Ayatollah Khamenei has underscored once more why the U.N. arms embargo against Iran must not be allowed to expire in October. His sinister tweets last month about a "final solution" for the "cancerous tumor," i.e. the "Zionist regime," rightly led to widespread condemnation—including from the U.S. and the European Union (EU).
But Khamenei is not some private internet crank who can be contained with a harsh statement or by removing his blue checkmark. He is, literally, the "supreme leader" of a clerical regime whose repeated genocidal threats against Israel are backed up with an advanced nuclear program and a four-decade-long military and terrorist campaign against the Jewish state. Europe has thus a historical and strategic duty to back U.S. diplomatic efforts at the United Nations (U.N.) to prevent Tehran from buying advanced weapons from Russia and China.
The Islamic Republic and its proxies have already caused untold deaths and destruction throughout Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Israel. Imagine the threat Iran would pose not just to Israel, but to the region, the U.S. and Western security, in general, if it could add state-of-the-art conventional weapons to its considerable ballistic missile arsenal, unconventional warfare capabilities and nuclear program. A militarily upgraded Iran, with the backing from Russia and China, would be a strategic game-changer smack in Europe's southern neighborhood.
The EU is in a bind, though. It still backs the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. And it is that same JCPOA which would allow Iran, in a few months, to go on a shopping spree for modern fighter jets, tanks and choppers. That's because U.N. Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, also inexplicably weakened sanctions on ballistic missiles and turned the previously indefinite U.N. arms embargo into one with an expiration date: October 18, 2020.
The hope was evidently that through ever-closer diplomatic and economic engagement, the regime would become a more "responsible" international actor so that its eventual rearmament wouldn't much matter. The regime, though, never moderated. Instead, it used the financial windfall from sanction relief to intensify its regional aggression and domestic oppression. This was the reality even in the years before the U.S. left the deal.
European leaders have repeatedly stated that while they disagree with the U.S. about the JCPOA, they do agree with Washington on the need to confront Iran's aggression. French President Emanuel Macron told President Donald Trump during his White House visit in 2018 about the need to "contain Iran in the region." But Macron didn't offer, and nobody really expects, France or other European nations to contain Iran militarily. This leaves only the diplomatic and economic arena if Europe's promises are to have any meaning. And now is the time to act.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeks a new U.N. Security Council resolution to extend the arms embargo indefinitely. Russia and China, both permanent Security Council members with veto power, are dead-fast against it.
European leaders ought to be clearly on the U.S. side on this issue. They should play hardball with Moscow and Beijing and announce diplomatic, if not economic, consequences if the two countries block a new Security Council resolution to extend the arms embargo. Such muscular posturing would also be Europe's best bet to preserve what's left of the JCPOA.
That's because if a new U.N. resolution is vetoed, the U.S. will initiate the "snapback" mechanism. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 gives each original party to the nuclear deal the right to restore all U.N. sanctions and embargoes if Iran violates the deal—without any possibility for permanent members to veto that decision. And Iran's violations are self-evident, as it openly announced in January that it will breach its commitment to limit uranium enrichment.
Russia and China, however, claim the U.S., because it withdrew from the JCPOA, can no longer activate snapback. The U.S. disagrees, arguing it has never been removed from the original list of the deal's participating states according to Resolution 2231.
Would Europe really stand with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran against Washington and use its diplomatic power not to stop, but to ensure, that a radical, anti-Western regime can rearm? If the EU is serious about Israeli security and containing Iran in the interest of the region and the West, it must back Washington's snapback option—even if that may seemingly contradict its goal of keeping the JCPOA alive.
Paradoxically, closing ranks with the U.S. and promising decisive measures against any nation supplying Iran with weapons is actually Europe's best chance to save the remains of the nuclear deal. A united transatlantic front would give Russia and China pause for thought, pushing them perhaps to accept a new arms embargo.
The EU's clear support of snapback as a last resort could thus help prevent it from being triggered in the first place.
Daniel Schwammenthal is director of the AJC Transatlantic Institute in Brussels