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October 25, 2020 12:40 am

Is Iran Pushing an Arms Race?

avatar by Benjamin Weil /


Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wears a protective face mask, during a virtual meeting with lawmakers, in Tehran, Iran, July 12, 2020. Photo: Official Khamenei website / Handout via Reuters.

JNS.orgWhile the United States has been busy with the presidential election and the blazing fires out West, the UN arms embargo on selling conventional weapons to Iran, under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has expired. This essentially allows Iran to import weapons and systems from various countries — the two most obvious ones being Russia and China.

Following the failed attempt a month ago in the UN Security Council to renew the arms embargo, Iran has laid the groundwork and begun negotiating arms deals with Russia and China. Just a day after the renewal of the embargo was thwarted, the Iranian Minister of Defense flew to Moscow to discuss the purchase of the S-400 system, the advanced SU-57 stealth fighter-jet, T-90 tanks, and a number of missile systems.

Iran has also recently signed a 25-year trade and military partnership with China worth $400 billion. According to reports, the military component includes joint training and exercises, joint weapons development, intelligence sharing, and, of course, arms sales, such as C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles.

This is a recipe for disaster, and an arms race waiting to happen. On October 19, the day after the UN weapons embargo officially expired, Iranian Minister of Defense Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami announced the Iranian intention of selling more weapons than it will purchase. If Iran is planning on a massive shopping spree of new weapons, systems, and technology, that can only mean that they will be exporting a ton more to “the countries despised by the Americans if they ask for it,” in Hatami’s words. The natural reaction to this would most likely be an arms race in the Middle East.

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That is not only a threat to the Middle East, but international stability as well. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has an appetite for Iranian medium and long-range missiles. In response to Maduro’s interest, an IRGC-associated Telegram channel posted: “The distance between Caracas and Washington is 3,500 km. If #Venezuela buy[s] ballistic missiles from #Iran it would be able to inflict serious damage on the US in case there was a war.”

The fear of a Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0 has never been more real. Despite US sanctions and embargoes on both Iran and Venezuela, Iran has been able to defy them multiple times with Iranian oil tankers reaching the shores of Venezuela. Make no mistake, Iran has decades of experience and knowledge in smuggling weapons to its various militias and terrorist organizations around the world, using air, land, and sea. If they can get by US sanctions with massive oil tankers, then nothing is stopping them from loading a couple of ICBMs or long-range missiles aboard as well, or even using smaller ships that are faster and easier to hide than massive oil tankers.

The crippling US sanctions and the January assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, gives Iran every reason to place missiles in Latin America and threaten mainland America. Over the past few decades, they have cultivated close relationships with various Latin American countries, namely Venezuela, Colombia, and possibly Bolivia too. Many of these relations are through their Hezbollah proxy and the 910 Unit, Hezbollah’s external security organization.

Yes, the United States plans to slap new sanctions on individuals and entities that engage with arms trade with Iran; but without the support of other countries, they will have a partial effect. These reimposed sanctions, pursuant to the snapback process of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, have been widely ignored by the world. Whether there is a new president in January or the current one remains, it is crucial for the United States to continue its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, and intensify it by finding and working with allies to curb Iranian influence and arms deals. Stopping Iran at all costs is paramount for the stability of the Middle East and to avoid another missiles crisis between Washington and Tehran.

Benjamin Weil is director of the Project for Israel’s National Security for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the international adviser to Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.

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