The 13-year arms embargo imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council expired on Sunday in accordance with Resolution 2231 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the 2015 nuclear deal. This means that Iran is free to buy and sell conventional weapons, a diplomatic victory over the US which failed in its efforts two months ago to extend the embargo having been opposed by Security Council members Russia and China, two countries widely thought to be among the first to trade with Iran and benefit from the lifting of the sanctions.
This did not stop the Trump White House re-imposing its own so-called snapback sanctions on Iran as it considers itself still a "participant" to the agreement. This is despite it being the same administration that took the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA unilaterally in 2018, leaving Iran with no choice but to "violate" the deal, which sought to offer sanctions relief in exchange for curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions, by steadily increasing the level of uranium enrichment.
European JCPOA signatories Britain, France and Germany had expressed their regret following the US withdrawal but have reiterated their commitment to the agreement as a "matter of respecting international agreements and a matter of international security".
"Even if the snapback [in sanctions] is performed, it will fire blank shots," said Iran's Major General Hossein Salami. "We will go ahead and take our actions if our rights are not fulfilled within the nuclear deal. We're not afraid of bluffs, threats and intimidation."
A momentous day for the international community, which— in defiance of malign US efforts—has protected UNSC Res. 2231 and JCPOA.
Today's normalization of Iran's defense cooperation with the world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region. pic.twitter.com/sRO6ezu4OO
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) October 17, 2020
Iran, after all, is an independent nation-state and since it became an Islamic Republic in 1979 it has had to defend its independence at great cost both in human and economic terms with Iraq's Western-backed invasion of its territory, for example, and US-led sanctions. Go back even further and we cannot forget the CIA-backed 1953 coup which undermined Iran's democracy and ambitions to free itself from foreign exploitation, an act which arguably paved the way for the populist revolution.
The latest failures by the US to punish Iran for its resistance to Washington's diktats have demonstrated yet again that Iran is very much an independent and free nation built upon a combination of perseverance, defiance and self-reliance. This, of course, comes at a hefty price.
"The United States can impose neither negotiations nor war one us", said President Hassan Rouhani during his online UN General Assembly address last month. "Life is hard under sanctions. However, it is harder without independence."
This is what the West and its allies and clients in the region do not take into account when looking at how to deal with Iran, especially when honour and national dignity form a potent mix with self-interest.
According to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh on Twitter yesterday, "Authority and dignity mean that, for the first time in the history of the [UN Security Council], the unlimited arms embargoes against a country have been lifted forever, without interrupting the country's defence programmes, including its missile development, or halting its foreign and regional policy goals, even for a moment."
The cost of this dignity and freedom is paid in sanctions and enforced isolation. Iran's economy is collapsing, no doubt exacerbated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the country and expenditure on its own foreign policy goals. Many observers have pointed out correctly that Iran is in no position to go on a "spending spree" even though it is now allowed to buy arms.
This was more or less acknowledged in a Foreign Ministry statement as reported by state media: "Iran's defence doctrine is premised on strong reliance on its people and indigenous capabilities… Unconventional arms, weapons of mass destruction and a buying spree of conventional arms have no place in Iran's defence doctrine."
Furthermore, according to Defence Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami, Tehran is more concerned with selling weapons than buying. He noted that Iran has made great progress in developing its own arms and they are apparently in demand.
Nevertheless, Iran is eager to acquire Russia's costly S-400 air defence system given the proliferation of American F-35 fighter jets in Israel's arsenal, which the UAE and Qatar are also seeking to purchase. Out of its limited realistic options, Russia is likely to be the arms supplier of choice for Tehran, according to the US Defence Intelligence Agency, which speculated last year that in the event of the lifting of arms sanctions, Iran would likely seek Russian Su-30 fighter jets, Yak-130 trainer aircraft and T-90 tanks, as well as the S-400 system. Yet Moscow, while saying that it is open to dealing with Iran once the arms sanctions end, may not want to jeopardise the new START arms reduction treaty with the US which expires in February.
Equally, China, which is yet to sell its drones to Iran, will also be careful in how it approaches its relationship with Tehran on one hand and the US and Gulf states on the other. That being said, both Russia and China are keen to increase bilateral ties in pursuance of the 25 year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which is currently pending negotiation and could see Beijing invest $400 billion in Iran's failing economy in exchange for meeting its energy needs at a discounted rate. This, of course, has the potential to hamper Iran's independence and status as a regional power, especially if its own regional policies have to conform with those of China's as a result. The outcome of this deal remains to be seen, but most recent reports suggest that as part of the deal with China, Iran may import North Korean missiles, notably the Hwasong-12 mobile ballistic missiles with a range of 4,500 kilometres.
It is clear that Iran has witnessed the outcomes in Iraq and Libya following their eventual surrender to the West and the end of their respective nuclear ambitions, unlike North Korea, which has thus far evaded invasion and military attacks. Pragmatism has therefore informed Iran's willingness to weather the storm of years of sanctions, which has had the unintended consequence of forcing it to become more self-sufficient, self-reliant and thus more independent as a nation. The series of summer explosions this year at key Iranian sites, including the Natanz nuclear facility described as "sabotage" by Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEO), has also led to more secrecy; last month the IAEO announced that a new facility is to be built to compensate for the damage sustained at Natanz which will be constructed "in the heart of the mountains".
Almost every year over the past 40 years, those most vehemently opposed to the Iranian government have predicted the imminent fall of the "Mullah regime", yet this has not materialised. Yes, the Iranian currency is at an all-time low; the daily coronavirus death toll has hit a record high as of yesterday; and there can be no denying the impact of the "maximum pressure" exerted on Iran in the form of crippling sanctions intended to bring the country to its knees. Nevertheless, Iran continues to stand defiantly and is a rare example of an independent state in the Middle East forming and following its own policies and seeking its own destiny. It may not be everyone's exemplar state, but it continues to show that it has what it takes to be an independent, free, Muslim country.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.