Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a military parade in Tehran

UN Bans On Iran’s Missile Program Expire, No Snapback In Sight

Wednesday, 10/18/2023

The UN sanctions on Iran’s missile program expired Wednesday, a victory for Tehran and raising concerns about the accelerated proliferation of its dangerous weapons.

The Iranian ministries of foreign affairs and defense issued separate statements announcing the end of UN prohibitions aimed at constraining Iran's missile and drone activities under Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which endorsed the now defunct 2015 nuclear deal. The Islamic Republic is now free to sell its drones, ballistic missiles, and related long-range strike technologies to its anti-Western partners and clients and buy technology to develop more.

The lapsed prohibitions in UNSCR 2231 included sanctions on key individuals and entities connected to Iran's nuclear and military infrastructures. Annex B of the resolution prohibited activities such as development, tests, military employment, and others.

The three European parties of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called E3, announced in September that they would keep their sanctions in place. However, the United States and E3 have not taken action to snap back UN sanctions or extend the UN's missile sanctions. A full snapback of sanctions would require a letter sent to the UN Security Council, informing it of Iran's noncompliance with UNSCR 2231.

The US on Wednesday tried to limit Iran's missile and drone programs by imposing new sanctions, warning companies how to avoid selling Iran sensitive technology and dusting off a 20-year-old program to stop weapons of mass destruction shipments, called the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

The US Treasury said it imposed sanctions on 11 individuals, eight entities and one vessel based in Iran, Hong Kong, China and Venezuela that enable Iran's "destabilizing" ballistic missile and drone programs.

The US government also issued an "Iran ballistic missile procurement advisory" to industry laying out what it said were the deceptive practices that Iran uses to obtain parts for its ballistic missile program from around the world.

In a joint statement, more than 45 states, including the US and close allies in Europe and Asia, committed to uphold the 2003 PSI designed to stop shipments related to weapons of mass destruction.

"The sanctions relief "was based on the assumption that Iran would take the necessary steps towards restoring confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. This has not happened," the joint statement said.

In a separate statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We see the horrific impact of Iran’s provision of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to designated terrorist organizations and militant proxies that directly threaten the security of Israel and our Gulf partners.”

"We see the destructive result of Iran’s transfer of lethal UAVs to Russia to target critical civilian infrastructure and kill civilians in Ukraine," he added, saying Washington would use "every tool at our disposal" to counter Iran’s development, procurement and proliferation of missiles and drones.

EU countries cite several reasons for keeping the sanctions: Russia's use of Iranian drones against Ukraine, the potential transfer of ballistic missiles from Iran to Russia, and Iran's violation of the nuclear deal, which has deprived Tehran of its benefits. However, they are unwilling to pursue a snapback. Snapback is a process that would result in the restoration of six UNSCRs on Iran from 2006 to 2010, along with the reinstatement of all their associated prohibitions and penalties. These measures were agreed upon in the JCPOA to ensure that Iran recognized the consequences of any non-compliance, consequences that cannot be thwarted by Russia and China, Iran's Security Council allies with veto power.

“Lapsing UN penalties on Iran’s ballistic missile tests, transfers, and other activities will be yet another sign of the international community’s irresolution to say and do the right thing on Iran. It will, therefore, embolden Iran to double down on its terror proxies and arms proliferation. The more confident Tehran feels, the more lethal the threat,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at US-based think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Additionally, sanctions by the E3 only restrict Iran’s missile trade with the European countries and do not extend to third parties. It practically means Iran can legally trade weaponry with Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. 

On Tuesday, Russia said it need no longer obey UN Security Council restrictions on giving missile technology to its ally Iran once they expire, without explaining if it plans to support Tehran's missile development.

"Supplies to and from Iran of products falling under the Missile Technology Control Regime no longer require prior approval by the UN Security Council," Russia's foreign ministry said. Russia has grown close to Iran since invading Ukraine in February 2022 and would likely use the easier flow of missiles to facilitate its invasion. Many of the hundreds of one-way attack drones it has used to bomb Ukraine in the last year were Iranian made.

Russia urged both the EU and the US to drop their sanctions, which it said were "an effort to settle political scores with Tehran" and had no implications for "other countries that treat international law and their obligations with due respect".

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said, “According to the provisions of 2231 UNSC Resolution, termination of these restrictions, does not require any resolution, statement or any other action in the context of the UNSC and occurred automatically."

As a result of the sanctions expiration, Iran’s can make money from missile sales and then use the profits to finance its militant and terror proxies in the Middle East.

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