Iranian Mayhem Is About to Get Worse
An expiring arms embargo underscores the limits of the U.S.’s “maximum
By Eli Lake October 24, 2019, 7:30 AM GMT+3
Back in 2015, desperate to reach a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear
program, U.S. negotiators made a fateful concession: The UN’s
conventional-arms embargo on Iran, they agreed, would be lifted in five
The costs of that concession, one of the worst mistakes of those
negotiations, are about to come due. The embargo is set to expire on Oct.
18, 2020 — and if it does, the situation in the Middle East is likely to get
The concession wasn’t to Iran so much as to China and Russia, two
great-power rivals that participated in the nuclear negotiations. In the
1990s, China and Russia sold Iran a variety of weapons systems, which the
Iranians then reverse-engineered. By this time next year, America’s two most
potent geopolitical rivals will have a green light to sell advanced missiles
to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
It would be bad enough if Iran kept those weapons for itself. But if past is
prelude, there is a good chance Iran’s numerous proxies in the Middle East
will benefit as well.
Last week, in little-noticed testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, the U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, shared
information from newly declassified U.S. intelligence assessments.
Since mid-2017, he said, Iran has “expanded its ballistic missile activities
to partners across the region.” That includes Hezbollah, Palestinian
terrorist groups and, as of mid-2018, Shia militias in Iraq. The new
intelligence also finds that Iran has increased its support of Hezbollah by
helping to expand the group’s ability to produce its own rockets and
missiles. Finally, Hook said, the U.S. intelligence community now believes
Iran is developing “missile systems and related technology solely for export
to its regional proxies.”
Taken together, this information underscores not only the need to extend the
United Nations arms embargo, but also the limits of the current U.S.
strategy of “maximum pressure.” While crippling sanctions on Iran have made
it much harder for groups such as Hezbollah and Shiite militias to pay
salaries, they have not put a dent in Iran’s broader quest to arm those
proxies with weapons capable of hitting U.S. allies. The world learned this
firsthand in September, when an Iranian missile destroyed a crude oil
processing facility deep inside Saudi Arabia.
Since that attack, neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia has responded with an
overt military strike. Earlier this month an Iranian oil tanker exploded in
the Red Sea, but no country has claimed credit. Meanwhile, the U.S. retreat
from northeastern Syria this month will potentially give Iran and its
proxies more influence inside that failed state.
This geopolitical picture, combined with the new intelligence about Iran,
makes the need for extending the arms embargo on Iran all the more urgent.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies, told me Wednesday that the U.N. arms embargo makes it much
easier for the U.S. and its allies to devise the legal predicate to
interdict weapons shipments to and from Iran.
The real danger, though, is that both China and Russia possess technology
that will make Iran’s already formidable military production even better.
Taleblu pointed to a Chinese and Russian cruise missile that can be
disguised in a cargo ship’s container. If Iran can upgrade its arsenal, he
said, it would be “the greatest missile power in the Middle East.”
The problem for the U.S. is that any extension of the arms embargo would
require agreement from both China and Russia, either of which can veto
resolutions at the UN Security Council. This places President Donald Trump’s
administration in a position similar to that of its predecessor. Between
2013 and 2015, Barack Obama’s administration needed Chinese and Russian
support for a final deal with Iran because it believed the crippling
sanctions that compelled Iran to negotiate would be toothless otherwise. And
one cost of this multilateral diplomacy was the expiration of the UN arms
Now it’s up to Hook and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make the case to
China and Russia to forgo weapons sales to Iran for the sake of broader
Middle East stability. To say that’s a long shot would be an understatement.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and
foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the
Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the
Washington Times, the New
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board
or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at [email protected]
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