Conventional wisdom: the flip side of the Iran nuclear deal

Written by Allison Pytlak, Control Arms

Secretary Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif Prepare for Second Day of Nuclear Talks in Vienna

Negotiations for the long-awaited agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme are in the endgame, and have been complicated by a political stumbling block – conventional weapons.

Earlier this week, Iranian negotiators formally proposed that any agreement also include an end to the UN Security Council arms embargo that was imposed on the Islamic Republic in 2010. They say this is a red line for them. The embargo covers the transfer of most major conventional weapons to Iran, as well as Iran’s exports, and builds on others imposed in 2006 and 2007 that cover the export of technology related to nuclear weapon delivery systems to Iran and arms exports from Iran. They are all open-ended.

On the surface, it’s easy to see why the P5+1 are hesitant. The Americans are specifically concerned with the expansion of Iranian military assistance for Syrian President Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia has indicated it wants to move forward with the delivery of arms that were purchased by Iran in a 2010 deal, and China is also eyeing the opportunity this could present. The gains made by successfully bringing their nuclear programme under IAEA control could have the paradoxical effect of opening the floodgates to conventional arms.

A closer look begs the question: how effective have the embargos been? Arms have made their way into the country regardless, and have also pushed Iran into significantly strengthening their own production capabilities. They see themselves as having been treated unfairly and justify their actions per this logic. Iran was also one of only three countries who voted against the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013. The embargoes have however shone a light onto Iranian arms transfer activities and generated a lot of very useful resources to help states observe and implement them. UN investigators have worked alongside states to document the contents of Iranian-bound arms seizures and illustrate the methods and networks utilized by Iran to export elsewhere.

Lifting any embargo carries risk, but there may also be an opportunity to begin a longer process of bringing Iran back into the international community. However, the international community that Iran would theoretically re-join has taken steps in recent years to control the irresponsible arms trade. Iran would not be exempt from new normative expectations that arms not be transferred to known human rights abusers, war criminals, or areas where they may be used to commit gender-based violence.

Western states often criticize Tehran for supplying arms to rebel groups, and rightfully so. In many cases, these groups have abysmal human rights records, and in all cases arms exports inevitably exacerbate conflict. In the same way, the P5+1 must also be held to the same standard and halt arms transfers that could end up in the hands of those that would commit atrocities.

Allison Pytlak is the Policy & Advocacy Specialist at Control Arms. Based out of New York, she provides policy and advocacy support and recommendations to the Control Arms Secretariat and coalition members, as well as liaises with partners and governments. Follow her on Twitter @a_pytlak

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