Part 1: History of Arms Embargos on Iran

The international community has long been concerned about Iran’s military arsenal. Since the 1979 revolution, the United States and the United Nations have imposed several embargoes on Tehran’s purchase of conventional weapons. The last U.N. embargo on Iran’s purchase of conventional weapons was lifted on October 18, 2020. Ending the embargo had been a key incentive for Iran’s cooperation on unconventional weapons in the 2015 nuclear deal. 

In late April 2020, the Trump administration announced a new diplomatic initiative to extend the U.N. embargo on conventional weapons. It limited all U.N. member states from selling weaponry – including battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems and spare parts – to the Islamic Republic. The U.S. initiative involved multiple options, but each faced many hurdles. 

For the United States, arms sales to Iran have been an issue because of Tehran’s longstanding support for militias across the Middle East and its military intervention in Syria. “In the last year, Iran fired ballistic missiles at its neighbors, mined and captured oil tankers, smuggled weapons into conflict zones, and shot down a civilian passenger jet. We can't risk Iran buying more advanced weapons and transferring their arsenal to irresponsible actors,” Pompeo tweeted on April 18.


U.S. Embargoes

  • Carter Administration: The first embargo was imposed by the United States after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in November 1979.
  • Reagan Administration: Additional embargoes were imposed during the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988. In 1983, the United States launched Operation Staunch, a worldwide diplomatic effort to block arms supplies – especially spare parts for U.S. equipment provided under the monarchy – to Iran. The Reagan administration pressured other governments to halt arms sales to Iran. It also imposed restrictions on exports to Iran of items that could be adapted for military use.
  • Bush Administration: In 1992, Congress passed the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act, which mandated sanctions on foreign countries and entities for supplying Iran with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology and advanced conventional weapons, such as cruise missiles and radar evading aircraft.
  • The United States ramped up sanctions on Iran after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. During his two terms, Tehran expanded its nuclear program and pursued a confrontational foreign policy toward the West. The Bush administration issued a series of orders freezing the assets of individuals and firms tied to Iran’s support for terrorism, its role in destabilizing Iraq, and its nuclear and missile programs. Washington sanctioned dozens of foreign companies, including many Chinese and Russian firms, for supporting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
  • The Obama administration: In 2017, Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, which mandated sanctions on the sale or transfer of military equipment or related technical or financial assistance to Iran.


U.N. Embargoes

Since 2007, the United Nations has also imposed embargoes on both the sale of conventional weapons to Iran by any member state and the transfer by Iran of the same weapons to any other party. The embargoes were included in Security Council resolutions to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. In the 2000s, the international community became increasingly concerned about Iran’s expanding uranium enrichment program and lack of transparency. Tehran claimed its program was only to produce peaceful nuclear energy as an alternative to oil and for medical research. The U.N. Security Council passed six resolutions:

  • July 31, 2006: Resolution 1696, which focused primarily on Iran’s nuclear program, also urged member states not to the transfer materials and technology usable in ballistic missile programs. It warned that Iran could be sanctioned if it did not comply by August 31, 2006.
  • Dec. 23, 2006: Resolution 1737, also primarily on Iran’s nuclear program required required states to prevent the sale or transfer of items to Iran that could be used in ballistic missiles.
  • March 24, 2007: Resolution 1747 restricted conventional arms transfers to and from Iran.
  • March 3, 2008: Resolution 1803 expanded the scope of restrictions on the transfer of nuclear and ballistic-missile related items.
  • June 9, 2010: Resolution 1929 required states to prevent the supply of most major conventional arms and combat equipment to Iran. It called on states to inspect vessels on their territory suspected of carrying prohibited items to Iran.
  • July 20, 2015: Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, banned conventional arms transfers to Iran for five years or until the IAEA verified that all of Iran’s nuclear material was for peaceful activities.


More in this series:


U.S. Options

In April 2020, U.S. officials outlined two ways to prevent the embargo from expiring.

Plan A: U.N. Security Council Resolution

The first U.S. option was a new U.N. Security Council resolution to extend the embargo indefinitely. The United States circulated a draft to Britain, France and Germany – all parties to the nuclear deal and Security Council members – in late April. (Germany has a seat this year as a rotating member, but it does not have veto power.)

Pompeo at the United Nations
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Iran on Dec. 12, 2018

The United States needed the support of eight other Security Council members to pass the resolution. China and Russia—countries that have sold major weaponry to Iran in the past—have the power to veto the resolution. So do Britain and France, which have veto power.

Brian Hook, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran, was initially optimistic about enlisting Russian and Chinese support for extending the embargo. “Russia and China have great equities in a peaceful and stable Middle East, and Iran’s sectarian violence and its export of weapons is the principal driver of instability in the Middle East today,” he said. “And because they voted on it in the past, there’s no reason why it can’t be voted on again.”

But Russia and China signaled their opposition. The United States is “well aware of our negative attitude towards this step” and has worked “on a fall-back option,” Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna, told Kommersant newspaper on April 28. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described U.S. behavior as “ridiculous and irresponsible” in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary General Antonio Guterres dated May 27. “This is absolutely unacceptable and serves only to recall the famous English proverb about having one’s cake and eating it,” Lavrov wrote.

“U.S. failed to meet its obligations under Resolution 2231 by withdrawing from JCPOA. It has no right to extend an arms embargo on Iran, let alone to trigger snapback. Maintaining JCPOA is the only right way moving forward,” the Chinese Mission to the United Nations tweeted on May 14. On June 7, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated the same points in a letter to the Security Council and the U.N. chief.  

On June 22, the United States circulated a draft resolution to the Security Council. “Russia and China were isolated at the (International Atomic Energy Agency) last week and they will be isolated in the Security Council if they continue down this road to dystopia,” Hook told Reuters. The U.N. nuclear watchdog’s board called on Iran to grant access to two suspect sites and to fully cooperate with an investigation into its past activities. Only China and Russia opposed the move. On June 24, Hook briefed the Security Council on the draft resolution to extend the arms embargo.

Hook also emphasized that the embargo banned Iran from exporting arms. Iran could become “the arms dealer of choice for rogue regimes and terrorist organizations around the world” if it expired, he warned in an interview with the Associated Press. Hook acknowledged that the embargo had not stopped Iran from smuggling arms across the Middle East. Iran has allegedly provided weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and other groups. “If we let it [the embargo] expire, you can be certain that what Iran has been doing in the dark, it will do in broad daylight and then some,” Hook added. 

Six U.S. allies in the Gulf lined up behind the resolution. “U.N. restrictions establish a consensus understanding of the threat to peace and stability Iranian proliferation represents,” the Gulf Cooperation Council said in a letter to the Secretary General on August 9.

Plan B: “Snapback” of U.N. Sanctions on Iran

The United States also explored two ways to trigger the so-called “snapback” of all U.N. sanctions on Iran – including an arms embargo – by citing Tehran for its breaches of the JCPOA. Iran exceeded limitations on its nuclear program at least five times beginning in July 2019, although each was quickly reversible, according to the Arms Control Association. Iran made the calibrated moves to pressure Europe to provide economic benefits promised by the JCPOA and to offset the impact of U.S. sanctions reimposed in 2018.   

The United States called on one of the other five signatories—Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia—to trigger the snapback at the Security Council. “We are urging our E3 partners to take action,” Pompeo said on April 29. None agreed. So the United States alone invoked the snapback under Resolution 2231. “Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015) lifted most U.N. sanctions but also created a legal mechanism for exclusive use by certain nations to snap sanctions back. The arms embargo is one of these sanctions,” Hook wrote in an op-ed published on May 13.  


U.S. Hurdles

But the United States faced multiple obstacles in rallying support for a U.N. resolution and in invoking existing mechanisms on conventional weapons. Because the Trump Administration withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, other countries argued that it did not have the legal standing to invoke “snapback” sanctions at the United Nations. “The U.S. has not participated in any meetings of activities within the framework of this agreement since then, Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy chief,” told Radio Free Europe on April 30. The three European powers, which have worked since 2018 to salvage the nuclear deal, refused to trigger snapback sanctions. On May 12, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called U.S. efforts “ridiculous.” Washington has “no right to trigger,” he told reporters. Nebenzia also warned that snapback could lead to the collapse of the JCPOA. 


The Trump Administration countered that it had the ability to invoke snapback sanctions under paragraphs 10 and 11 of Resolution 2231 regardless of its position on the JCPOA, Hook told reporters on April 30. “We are well within our rights under a plain reading of 2231, but we are very hopeful about being able to renew the arms embargo.”

The Security Council voted on August 14 on a U.S. resolution that would require all U.N. member states to indefinitely forbid the sale of conventional arms to Iran failed at the Security Council in one of the worst diplomatic defeats ever for Washington. The vote in the 15-member body was only two in favor (the United States and the Dominican Republic), two against (Russia and China), and 11 abstentions. To win passage, any Security Council resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes from the Council’s five permanent members – Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States.

The following are statements by Hook and Pompeo on the arms embargo.

Related material: “Iran’s Breaches of the Nuclear Deal”

More in this series:


Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary Brian Hook

On Depriving Iran of the Weapons of War

Via Teleconference

April 30, 2020

HOOK:  October 18th is when the arms embargo on the Iranian regime expires, so we are now within six months.  It’s important to understand the history of this ban.  So Iran has been under various embargoes since March of 2007, and that’s when – at that time I was on the UN Security Council and I was one of the negotiators of Resolution 1747, and that includes a ban on Iranian export of arms and material.  And then in 2010, we’ve got UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which put restrictions on Iranian imports of restricted weapons in addition to their export.

These restrictions were – this is – I’m talking about the restrictions on the import and export of weapons – were unanimously passed by the UN Security Council.  That includes China and Russia.  And the reason is because Iran for decades has not been at peace with its neighbors and has not been a good neighbor and has also conducted terrorist campaigns across five continents.  Unfortunately, the UN Security Council resolution that had – that prohibited the import and export of weapons was lifted.  It was replaced by 2231.

And the mistake there was in year five of the joint – of the – under 2231, the ban – the arms embargo sunsets after five years.  So we’re now getting very close to that point.  And I think as we survey the last five years, I would be delighted to hear someone make the case as a policy matter why the Iranian regime should be free to import and export conventional weapons.  I think Iran’s behavior over the last five-plus years proves why these restrictions are so important.

And going back to 2011, Iran was caught exporting explosives, AK-47s, machine guns, mortars, and rockets to Syria.  And then in 2013 they were caught moving to Yemen anti-aircraft missiles, surface-to-air missiles, RPGs, and other explosives.  Those were interdicted off the coast of Yemen.  In 2014, 400,000 rounds of ammo and other rockets and mortars were seized in the Red Sea.  In 2016 – this is off the Gulf of Oman – 1,500 Kalashnikov rifles and 200 RPGs, and then there were also 2,000 guns and other weapons found off the coast of Oman. 

Since that period in 2018, 2019, and ’20, you have had hundreds and hundreds more weapons have been interdicted, and these are Iranian shipments of weapons to intensify and prolong sectarian conflicts in the Middle East.  I’ve certainly seen the physical evidence on my travels, and so have the UN inspectors, and we’ve made a number of these public.  I’ve spoken at the Defense Department at the base where they have a lot of Iran’s conventional weapons.

They have also provided to the Houthis advanced, state-of-the-art ballistic missiles which terrorize Saudi Arabia and UAE, and they’ve got anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, naval mines, and explosive boats. 

So we can’t let the arms embargo expire.  It was a mistake to ever put this in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.  And we have drafted a resolution.  It’s quite easy to renew the arms embargo, and since the arms embargo has been voted on unanimously in the past, there’s a lot of policy precedent to support renewing the arms embargo.

We have started our diplomacy on this.  We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to do this in a very clean way through the UN Security Council, but we’re also prepared to use every diplomatic option available to us if those efforts are frustrated.

QUESTION:  I’ve got a question on timing of all of this.  When do you think that you would have to – presuming that you are not able to get the embargo and only the embargo extended, when is the kind of drop-dead date for moving to the, quote-unquote, “nuclear option,” which would be the snapback?  And I ask that with the following in the background, which is that Estonia starting tomorrow has the presidency of the council, then it’s France, Germany, and then it gets into Russia and there’s no way that that’s going to come before the council – even an extension – after that.  So when do you need to have the embargo extended or move to your next option?  Thanks.

HOOK:  Well, we’re focused on the first option, and you have made the assumption that we’re not able to do this.  We are operating under the assumption that we will be able to renew the arms embargo.

Russia and China have great equities in a peaceful and stable Middle East, and Iran’s sectarian violence and its export of weapons is the principal driver of instability in the Middle East today.  And because they voted on it in the past, there’s no reason why it can’t be voted on again.  You look at the last five years; no one can argue that Iran has fulfilled its commitments in the preambular paragraphs of the JCPOA to – that the deal would promote a more peaceful and stable Middle East.  Iran used the sanctions relief and some of the suspensions of sanctions to run an expansionist foreign policy and to double down on their revolutionary adventures around the Middle East.

So we’re hopeful.  We’ve had very good discussions with a number of partners and allies.  We think that there will be a lot of support for this, and so we’re focused on doing that.  We don’t have specific timelines to announce.  You do know that the arms embargo expires in October, and this administration will not allow the – Iran to be importing and exporting weapons under the UN Security Council.

QUESTION:  Just to be clear, do you believe the U.S. has legal authority to invoke snapback?  And then second, how are you going to overcome or how would you overcome opposition from European allies that have already questioned whether the U.S. has that authority? 

HOOK:  Which specific Europeans are you talking about?  I just haven’t seen that.

QUESTION:  That was diplomats from the E3 raising deep skepticism about the idea that the U.S. has the right to invoke snapback.

HOOK:  I haven’t seen that on the record.  I’ve been to Paris some couple of months ago, made a couple of trips to the UN Security Council to consult with folks.  If you read operative paragraph 10 and operative paragraph 11 of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, it’s very clear the United States is named as a JCPOA participant in paragraph 10 that defines the term “participant” for 2231.  And then in paragraph 11 it explains that – the rights to any participant, and that obviously involves the rights that we have under 2231.

So our right as a participant is something which exists independently of the JCPOA.  There is no qualification in 2231 where “participant” is defined in a way to require participation in the JCPOA; and if the drafters wanted to make the qualification, they could have, but they did not.  And so under a plain reading of 2231, any participant has the right under paragraph 11 to exercise those rights in the event of a dispute or other scenarios.  And so this is not – I mean, I’ve been working on UN Security Council resolutions for years.  This is the plain reading of the text.

QUESTION:  Can I just ask you point blank if the U.S. has asked the EU – E3 to trigger snapback?  Just that one.  I think it’s very unlikely that you’re going to see, on the record, any European diplomats talking about their reservations about this U.S. push.  But I think it’s fair to say that it’s well known that they’re not necessarily exactly on the same page with you guys on this.  So can you talk what kind of leverage U.S. has on Europeans to bring them on the same page and to convince them on this?  Thank you.

HOOK:  So on the first question, I don’t share the contents of our discussions bilaterally, and I just challenge your premise that – I mean, what you’re essentially – I mean, are you suggesting that the Europeans would like to see the arms embargo to expire?  I just don’t see that.  I haven’t seen any Europeans publicly say that they would like to see the arms embargo expire.  I don’t think, other than a handful of countries around the world like – it’s just hard to imagine a scenario where people think it’s a good idea for the ayatollah to get conventional weapons.  It just doesn’t make any sense. 

QUESTION:  There are some reports that the U.S. is circulating drafts now at the UN Security Council.  I know that the U.S. had been circulating drafts earlier this year, but – so did it – is it starting with new drafts now?  Is that’s what’s happening now? And just the last thing:  Obviously, people have talked about that there’s a real possibility of – if the U.S. went forward with this and China and Russia simply didn’t go along, that there could be sort of lasting damage to the Security Council, something like that happen – is that even a concern now or is that sort of a peripheral issue?

HOOK:  On the first question, we have drafted a resolution that would renew the arms embargo, and this can be very cleanly done.  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Also on the same day, the travel ban on – I believe it’s now 22, it used to be 23 – 22 Iranian terrorists who are under a travel ban or an assets freeze, that also expires.  So there’s some things that we need to do to fix some of the bad decisions that were made under the Iran nuclear deal.  This is one of them. 

And on the second question, look, we’re very focused on getting a resolution passed – negotiating a resolution and then getting it passed.  We’re about six months out.  Secretary Pompeo and I had been talking about this for some months and ringing the bell, alerting people to the fact that the country that sponsors more terrorism than any other in the world is going to be free to import and export conventional weapons. 

In terms of China and Russia’s role in the Council, if you’re a member of the Council, you have an obligation to follow what the Security Council decides.  This is just the nature of being in the Council.  If you have a “decides” paragraph that is binding as a matter of international law, one of the reasons that you’re a member is to participate in it.  In terms of whether this helps or hurt, I’m not going to speculate on that.  It is clear that China, Russia, United States, the countries that are defined in paragraph 10 have rights under 2231 for the purposes of policing and addressing nonperformance.  Everyone knows that the Iranian regime has now violated the Iran nuclear deal five times by increasing the purity of their enrichment, increasing stockpiles.  So we are well within our rights under a plain reading of 2231, but we are very hopeful about being able to renew the arms embargo. 

QUESTION:  Suppose that Russia and China don’t go along and they decide to sell or resume shipment of arms to Iran.  What leverage would you have, then, with these two countries, and what options you may have? 

HOOK:  Not going to answer a hypothetical question like that. 

QUESTION:  The last time that this deal was negotiated, according to David Sanger’s excellent story, and Wendy Sherman is quoted in it, China and Russia were the ones that insisted on the expiring arms deal.  But China and Russia – you’ve also been able to talk with them over the past few years about interests of concern with Iran.  So do you think you could come to a meeting of minds on this issue?

HOOK:  Yes, we are very – I think there’s good reason – as I said earlier in the call, kind of laying out our case, Iran has increased – during the life of the Iran nuclear deal, you have objective metrics that I think are evident: increased missile testing, increased missile proliferation, increased sectarian violence, et cetera.  We came in and started reversing those money flows, and we have now put in place a sanctions architecture that has no historic precedent on the Iranian regime.  That is the right policy to reverse a number of things.  We lost deterrents under the Iran nuclear deal, the regime got richer, the proxies got richer. 

And so now we’re putting in – we have put in place a very sound policy that is much better to serve the interests of the United States and our partners and allies around the world than what we inherited.  I know that there is a desire to try to jump right over our diplomatic efforts and go right to the possibilities of snapback, but that’s not our focus.  Our focus is on engaging in thoughtful and measured diplomacy with all the relevant parties to successfully negotiate a renewal of the UN arms embargo, and as a drafting matter it’s not complicated.  And there is ample precedent for everybody that we’re talking with who have voted on this in the past, and the same reason they voted on it in the past should be the same reason they would support it today, and so we’re going to focus on that in the months ahead.

QUESTION:  First off, with respect to Russia and China, there  we have seen that both countries have a knack for opposing U.S. initiatives even when there might be a good argument for cooperation.  Have you received any indication that they’re interested in – that they’re actually interested in breaking that habit on this question? And then on the E3 side, they clearly believe and have believed that the 2015 nuclear deal delivers security benefits, and there’s a disagreement there, but they believe that.  Have you gotten any indication in setting up this diplomatic initiative – have you gotten any indication that – from the E3 that the costs of the embargo expiring outweigh the perceived benefits from their perspective of the Iran deal? 

HOOK:  I spent two years in the UN Security Council successfully negotiating with the Chinese and the Russians, and so I would challenge your sort of premise that the Russians and the Chinese have a habit of opposing us. Certainly we have plenty of instances in the UN Security Council where there’s been vetoes in either direction, but in the case of Iran we have had good experience working with the Chinese and the Russians, as I did during the Bush administration, on putting in place a multilateral sanctions architecture.  The Iran nuclear deal suspended much of that architecture, and it’s going – this sort of scaffolding is going to continue to be disassembled in the coming years. 

And since Iran’s behavior worsened under the Iran nuclear deal, I think there’s very good reasons to support our position.  I don’t hear anyone arguing that it’s a good thing for the arms embargo to be lifted.  Now, there may be tactical disagreements on how to go about renewing the arms embargo, but this is a necessary thing that has to happen.  This is a policy judgment that we have made, that the arms embargo must be renewed, and we will exercise all diplomatic options to accomplish that.

On the – I think it was on the second question of – I’m not going to go into private discussions that we’ve had with the Europeans, but I’ve had a number of good meetings with them in Europe and in New York, and we’ll continue to work together to address Iran’s threats to peace and security, which are many. 

QUESTION:  At the top, you said in talking about the need to renew the arms embargo, you said you’re hopeful to do this in a very clean way, but you’re also prepared to use diplomatic options if not successful.  What are those options?  And would they be against Iran or against those who voted against the renewal?

HOOK:  So I would refer you to what Secretary Pompeo said, that in terms of – we have limited our focus to the arms embargo and 2231.  And under the terms of the deal, that’s going to expire in October; it needs to be renewed.  And when we talk about our diplomatic options, we’re talking about ensuring that the arms embargo gets renewed.

QUESTION:  When did the administration arrive at this conclusion to sort of marry the strategies of snapback and the conventional arms embargo?  And the Secretary said a few weeks ago that China and Russia are already gearing up to deliver conventional weapons to Iran once the embargo lifts in October.  Do you see that as still the case?

HOOK:  I think there had been some statements made in the press.  I can’t point you to the exact ones, but I think there was some reporting about China or Russia interested in selling weapons to the regime when the arms embargo expires.  We think there are good reasons not to proceed with those transactions, and we think there are good policy arguments as to why the arms embargo needs to be renewed.

In terms of when we arrived at this position, to your specific question, Secretary Pompeo in various visits to the UN Security Council has notified the council that the arms embargo needs to be renewed.  And as we’re getting closer, we have now signaled our seriousness of purpose by making clear that we have rights under 2231 to ensure that this arms embargo does get renewed. 

So I wouldn’t highlight a specific day; it’s just been as we’re now getting – we are now within six months of the arms embargo expiring, and we have started our diplomacy on this.  We have signaled a pathway forward, and we very much hope that we’re able to do this in a way that simply renews the arms embargo and that we’re in a good place.  But if those efforts are frustrated, we are prepared to do whatever is necessary.

QUESTION:  I was hoping you could expand just a little bit more on why you think you have standing to do this, why you have these rights as a participant since you’ve withdrawn from the JCPOA.  You seem a little bit to be in the position of someone who’s gotten a divorce but is still claiming to have marriage rights.  Could you just expand a little bit more on your thinking on why you have the legal standing? 

HOOK:  Participant has two meanings, and I think the people that sort of haven’t really stared at this long enough don’t understand that there are two participant meanings.  One is you can be a participant in the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.  Participant also has another legal meaning, and that occurs in the context of 2231.  And so if you read operative paragraph 10, which concerns resolving any issues with respect to implementation of the JCPOA – and we are defined in operative paragraph 10 as a participant.  And so for the purposes of resolving issues, we are – we have certain rights that are clearly there. 

And there’s no qualification.  Nowhere in operative paragraph 10 does it say that it requires membership in the JCPOA.  And if you – there are ways where that could have been qualified.  But they didn’t.  And so as a lawyer, as somebody who’s drafted scores of UN Security Council resolutions, you just have to do a plain reading of paragraph 10 and paragraph 11 to see that we have rights as a participant in 2231, and that’s very plain.

QUESTION:  Many Europeans I talked to – I basically laid out for them the argument you just made, which is that there are two forms of participation, and one is that rhetorical one the President made when he issued his statement in April or May of 2018 that we would no longer participate, and the other was the legal one you just described.  And their answer basically was that may be legally defensible, but it’s diplomatically too cute, and that in the end you can’t be a – as a matter of politics, not necessarily a matter of law, you can’t be a participant for legal purposes and a non-participant for political purposes. 

And they thought that the risk you were running was that if you went ahead and did this you might win on the law but no one would sort of go along with it, and they would basically not enforce the arms embargo and not enforce the old resolutions that would suddenly be snapped back into place.  No doubt you considered this risk, so I just wanted to see how you plan to handle that. 

HOOK:  We’re hopeful that our diplomacy will succeed and that we will have passed a UNSCR that renews the arms embargo.  And I understand there’s an interest to engage in hypotheticals about what happens if they don’t, but right now our focus is around successfully passing a new resolution.  And we started those discussions, and we’re entering them in good faith and with hope that we’ll be able to pass such a resolution, and anything beyond that is entirely hypothetical.  We are dealing with sort of the concrete reality.  We have a policy goal of renewing the arms embargo, and that’s where our focus is.  We’re hopeful that we’ll succeed.


Secretary Mike Pompeo With Shannon Bream of Fox News

April 30, 2020

QUESTION:  I want to ask you about another hotspot out there on the foreign policy front, because you raised the red flag today about the fact that absent some kind of intervention or action, come October 23rd, Iran will again be able to buy weapons systems from places like China, from Russia, from other places.  There are those who say listen, this administration walked away from the nuclear deal with Iran, and so you have no way to enforce obligations on them with regard to arms.  You have said you would go to the UN under a current existing resolution.  Are you able to get an enforcement against those arms sales under that resolution?  Is it tied to the nuclear deal?  Are they severable?  What’s the plan?

POMPEO:  So, Shannon, the place to start with this is the fact that the Iran nuclear deal set October of this year, October of 2020, as a date that any country can sell conventional arms to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  We’ve seen their bad behavior.  That was nuts.  It’s why we got out of the deal.  It’s why we left it.

And now our task is to do our best to make sure those arms can’t be sold.  We’re working with our British, our French partners, our friends, saying you all know this doesn’t make sense either.  I think they agree with us on that.  We hope the Russians and the Chinese will see it that way, too.  But make no mistake about it; we’re going to use every tool we can in our diplomatic capability to ensure that that prohibition on arms sales to Iran doesn’t expire in just a handful of months.

One option is to go to the UN.  UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is pretty clear, and it’s pretty clear about what a participant is.  This is separate from the JCPOA.  We are one of the participants, and the participants have the right to invoke snapback in a way that will prevent this expiration of the arms sales.  It would be a good thing.  The whole world would benefit if we do that.  It will keep arms out of the hands of the ayatollah.  I don’t think anyone can dispute that that’s a good thing.

QUESTION:  Well, Javad Zarif, the Iran foreign minister, tweets this:  “2 years ago, Secretary Pompeo and his boss declared ‘CEASING US participation’ in the JCPOA,” – or the Iran nuclear deal – “dreaming that their ‘max pressure’ would bring Iran to its knees.  Given that policy’s abject failure, he now wants to be JCPOA participant.  Stop dreaming: Iranian nation always decides its destiny.”

So you’re saying the path you may follow to stop these arms is separate and apart from the nuclear deal?  How do you respond to their assessment that you have no power to do that?

POMPEO:  Yeah, I don’t pay much attention to the words of Foreign Minister Zarif.  He is a professional disinformation campaigner.  What the American people should know is President Trump is committed to using every tool we have to prevent the Iranians from getting more conventional arms.  I am convinced that we have the capacity to do that.

It’s not about getting back into the JCPOA.  We have no intention of doing that.  That thing was a disaster.  It’s not our goal; it’s not what we’re going to do.  We’re going to use the United Nations tools that we– have been made available to us and UN resolutions that passed the UN Security Council to ensure that those arms sales don’t take place.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the Release of the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism

June 24, 2020

POMPEO: Today, Special Representative Hook is briefing members of the United Nations Security Council on our diplomacy to prevent the arms embargo from expiring on Iran in October of this year. 
Without action, on the 18th of that month, Iran will be able to purchase advanced weapon systems and become the arms dealer of choice for terrorists and rogue regimes all throughout the world.  This is unacceptable.

Iran has been under arms restrictions by the United Nations since back in 2007.  And one of the greatest failures of the Iran nuclear deal was to allow these restrictions to expire without regard to how the regime behaved.

The resolution that we will present to the UN Security Council would extend the conventional arms embargo on the leading state sponsor of terror.

Our focus now is to work with the Security Council to pass this resolution.  But in the event it doesn’t happen, I would remind the world that the Obama administration’s officials said very clearly that the United States has the unilateral ability to snap back sanctions into place.

Two quotes, first from President Obama.  He said, “If at any time the United States believes Iran has failed to meet its commitments, no other state can block our ability to snap back those multilateral sanctions.”
And then my predecessor Secretary Kerry said, look, “If we’re not happy, we can go to the Security Council and we alone” – we alone – “can force a vote on… snapping back of those sanctions.”

The legal options in the Security Council are clear.  Our great preference is to have a Council resolution that would extend the arms embargo, but we are determined to ensure that that arms embargo continues. 

QUESTION:  You put the threat on the table again of the snapback of – unilateral snapback of sanctions.  Does that mean you don’t have the support in the UN for an extended embargo that you wish to have?

POMPEO:   I don’t know. 

QUESTION:  Why you don’t know?

POMPEO:  By the way, it’s not a threat.  The – what I’ve made clear is U.S. policy.  It is unacceptable – it’s unacceptable for the Europeans to have equipment inside of Iran, move into Iran, that can threaten the people of Europe, right.  People from Belgium to Denmark are at threat because of the expiration of an arms embargo on the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.  I’m hopeful that the whole world will accept the proposition that this arms embargo needs to be extended.  They’ll be an arms merchant, too.  Not only will they take weapon systems and purchase high-end weapon systems from Russia and China, but they’ll sell their weapon systems all across the world too.  This is not the – this is a rogue regime, they shouldn’t have the capacity to do that, and I am very hopeful that the whole world, when we come to the point when this decision must be made, that they will come to the same understanding that the United States has, that this is dangerous for the world for this to have expired.

QUESTION:  You said you don’t know.  Does it mean you don’t know you have enough support in UN, or does it mean you don’t know how the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese will act?

POMPEO:  We are out working diligently to make sure everybody understands the risk that’s associated with the arms embargo expiring.  This is really dangerous for the whole world, for the region.  The Gulf states know it too.  There’s tremendous support for what it is we’re trying to do.  I think all but a couple of nations understand that this should not expire, and there’s going to be a discussion about how it is that we extend it.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a Virtual Meeting of the U.N. Security Council

June 30, 2020

Because of the flawed nuclear deal negotiated by the previous American administration, the arms embargo on the world’s most heinous terrorist regime is scheduled to expire on October 18th, a mere four months from now.  Four months.

This chamber has a choice:  Stand for international peace and security, as the United Nations’ founders intended, or let the arms embargo on the Islamic Republic of Iran expire, betraying the UN’s mission and its finest ideals, which we have all pledged to uphold.

If you fail to act, Iran will be free to purchase Russian-made fighter jets that can strike up to a 3,000 kilometer radius, putting cities like Riyadh, New Delhi, Rome, and Warsaw in Iranian crosshairs. 

Iran will be free to upgrade and expand its fleet of submarines to further threaten international shipping and freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea.

Iran will be free to purchase new and advanced technologies for its proxies and partners throughout the Middle East, including Hamas, Hizballah, and the Houthis.

Iran will hold a sword of Damocles over the economic stability of the Middle East, endangering nations like Russia and China that rely on stable energy prices.

Iran will be free to become a rogue weapons dealer, supplying arms to fuel conflicts from Venezuela, to Syria, to the far reaches of Afghanistan.


In November of last year, President Rouhani himself said, quote, “When the embargo… is lifted next year, we can easily buy and sell weapons,” end of quote.  We should take him at his word.

Iran is not a responsible democracy like Australia or India.  We already know what Tehran will do, if given the ability to buy more weaponry.

Just consider the secretary general’s UNSCR 2231 report that we’re discussing today.  The report confirmed that weapons used to attack Saudi Arabia in September 2019 were of Iranian origin.  The report has also confirmed the weapons interdicted off the coast of Yemen in November of 2019 and February 2020 were of Iranian origin.

Iran is already violating the arms embargo, even before its expiration date.  Imagine if Iranian activity were sanctioned, authorized by this group, if the restrictions were lifted.

And we don’t need the secretary general’s report to see what else the regime is doing.  In January, Iran launched an attack on the coalition forces in Iraq with its own advanced missiles. 

Iran, even as we sit here today, supplies Shia militia groups like Kata’ib Hizballah – groups which have launched dozens of rocket attacks since the fall of last year against U.S. and coalition forces fighting the important continued important campaign against Daesh.

Iran unleashes ship-mining attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf of Oman, as it did in May and June of last year.

Nearly all countries have arms.  Mature nations use them for defensive purposes and to promote stability. 

But not the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Don’t just take it from me or from the United States; listen to countries in the region.  From Israel to the Gulf, countries in the Middle East – who are most exposed to Iran’s predations – are speaking with a single voice:  Extend the arms embargo.

This council has a responsibility to listen to them.

The United States’ overwhelming preference is to work with this council to extend the arms embargo to protect human life, to protect our national security, and to protect yours.

We’ve imposed arms restrictions on Tehran in various forms for 13 years, and with good reason, and to substantial effect.

When we unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 1747 back in 2007 – which, among other actions, prohibited arms transfers from Iran – the United Kingdom’s representative to the council said, quote, “The path of proliferation by Iran is not one that the international community can accept,” end of quote.

I welcome the statement from the United Kingdom, from France and Germany, recently recognizing that lifting the embargo would have major implications for regional security and stability.

I also welcome the support of almost 400 members of the United States Congress.  For those of you not tracking, there’s only 435.  Those almost 400 members supported my diplomacy to extend this arms embargo.  Our concern is a matter of national security, not partisan politics.

We saw from Iran’s actions while implementing the JCPOA that the regime doesn’t moderate when we lift sanctions or weaken accountability.

In fact, it does just the opposite.

While still claiming to remain in the deal, Iran, by its own admission, and as confirmed by the IAEA, is showing no signs of slowing its destabilizing nuclear escalation. 

Iran is also accumulating dangerous knowledge.  For example, late last year Iran announced that its scientists were working on a new centrifuge – the IR-9 – that would allow Tehran to enrich uranium up to 50 times faster than the IR-1 centrifuges allowed under the JCPOA.

Even as Iran pursues research that could threaten its breakout time to a nuclear weapon, it’s also denied IAEA inspections access to locations Iran is obligated to provide.

This council cannot simply hope that Iran acts in good faith, given its indisputable fact pattern.

The council must hold Iran accountable.  And we all have the chance to do so. 

I’ll close with this.  I’ll close with an appeal to our greater purpose.

Article I of the UN Charter says the purpose of the UN is to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to … peace.”

Consider the overwhelming evidence that I’ve detailed today.  It’s a fraction of the evidence available.  If Iran isn’t a threat to peace that demands a collective measure, I do not know what is.

The council must reject extortion diplomacy.  President Rouhani recently declared, quote, “Iran will give a crushing response if the arms embargo on Tehran is extended.”  End of quote. 

Given the Iranian regime’s history of resorting to terrorism and violence, perhaps we should take this threat seriously.  Iran’s foreign minister will speak today.  I hope he’ll tell us – I hope he’ll tell us whom he intends to crush and how he will crush them.     

Renewing the embargo will exert more pressure on Tehran to start behaving like a normal nation.

The world needs this to happen.  The long-suffering Iranian people need this to happen.

Seventy-five years ago, the founders of the UN came together after the devastation of World War II to ensure that the world would never again have to face such horrors.

Let’s not shrink from the challenge before us simply because the path ahead seems hard.

Let’s uphold the mission of this body to address the threats to international peace and security that the Islamic Republic of Iran presents.    

And let’s take real action in the name of this council by extending the arms embargo. 

Thank you all for allowing me to be here today.



Garrett Nada, the managing editor of The Iran Primer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, contributed to this report. 


Photo Credit: State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

Some of the information in this article was originally published on May 11, 2020.