Part 7: Europe, China and Russia on End of U.N. Arms Embargo

The six major powers that negotiated the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—despite their differences on many other global flashpoints—split deeply over whether to lift the U.N. embargo banning the sale of conventional weapons to Iran. Ending the embargo had been a key incentive for Iran to cooperate on its unconventional weapons. The Trump administration had sought to extend the embargo, which expired in October 2020, but the U.N. rejected its draft resolution. The other five signatories—three European powers, China and Russia—then split again among themselves over whether to sell weapons to Iran.

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Russia and China – Iran’s two biggest arms suppliers in the 1990s and 2000s – welcomed the end of the embargo. Moscow anticipated greater “cooperation in the military-technical sphere” with Tehran, the Foreign Ministry said on October 18. Beijing agreed that the lifting of the embargo should be “faithfully implemented,” but it did not immediately commit to selling weapons to Iran. “China will continue handling arms trade in a prudent manner,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on October 19. 

At a Security Council session on October 20, the three European parties—Britain, France and Germany—had their own takes. Britain and France criticized Iran for providing weapons to its proxies across the Middle East. Britain said it would “redouble” efforts to limit Iranian arms shipments to Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. France urged Russia and China not to sell weapons to Iran and said that it would “strictly” enforce the E.U. arms ban on Iran.

Germany instead focused on Iran’s human rights violations. “The prisons in Iran are the most abhorrent in the whole region, similar to what we witness in Syria,” German Ambassador to the U.N. Christoph Heusgen said. He urged Iran to comply with “international law, the [2015 nuclear deal] and other international agreements.” The following are statements from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.



Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on October 18: “Cooperation in the military-technical sphere [with Iran] will proceed depending on needs of the parties and mutual readiness to such cooperation in a calm fashion.”


Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on October 15: “Russia has repeatedly pointed out that the requirements contained in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 are not subject to a revision. These include a special procedure for arms and military equipment deliveries to and from Iran.  As is common knowledge, the UN Security Council did not introduce any “arms embargo” against Iran in 2015. Tehran has volunteered to assume a number of restrictions, which was done solely in the interests of an early, positive culmination of the JCPOA talks. From the very start, all the parties involved were aware that these restrictions had nothing to do with settlement related to the Iranian nuclear program. The term of the relevant provisions has expired.

“For Russia, Iran is a reliable partner in many spheres of collaboration. We are convinced that the opportunities opening in connection with the expiry of the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, related to military-technical cooperation with Iran will be duly taken into consideration and promptly used on a mutually beneficial basis and for the good of the people of both countries. 

“The U.S. allegations that it has single-handedly restored all the Security Council sanctions against Iran, which were effective before the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, are not true to fact.  We have repeatedly commented on this. The UN Security Council does not share the US opinion, nor has it taken any steps to “re-launch” the former restrictions. The world has refused to be taken in by Washington’s tricks that we characterize as unlawful and even underhanded.  Regrettably, this is emerging as Washington’s signature style in international affairs.

“We do hope that the U.S. colleagues have kept a measure of reasonableness to acknowledge the reality. International agreements must be observed by all parties involved, including the United States; there should be no attempts to revise them in retrospect or to be confined to implementing only those elements that suit Washington.”



Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian during a daily press briefing on October 19: “The Security Council Resolution 2231 has clear stipulation of lifting the restrictive measures like the arms embargo against Iran, which should be faithfully implemented. China has been committed to safeguarding peace and stability in the Middle East and the Gulf region, and proactively advancing the political and diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. Following our policy on the export of military articles and our international obligations, China will continue handling arms trade in a prudent manner.”

“The United States' move makes no sense. China opposes unilateral sanctions imposed by the US. The United States even claims China will export huge amounts of weapons to Iran. In fact, China's policy and practice on export of military articles reflect a high sense of responsibility. By contrast, the US has been selling its arms all over the world, seeking geopolitical interests through arms trade, interfering in other countries' internal affairs and even withdrawing its signing of the Arms Trade Treaty. It is in no position to make unwarranted accusations against China.

“Resolution 2231 makes clear arrangements for lifting the arms embargo against Iran and other restrictive measures, which should be implemented accurately. I just talked about China's position earlier.”




British Mission to the U.N. on October 20: “We have also frequently expressed our concern about Iran’s wider activity in the region. Iran has consistently carried out arms transfers to regional non-state actors in violation of Security Council resolutions. There can be no doubt that such proliferation destabilizes the region and escalates already high tensions. That is why we regret the expiry of resolution 2231’s conventional arms restrictions. We will therefore continue to build our security cooperation with allies and partners and work to find a sustainable solution to Iranian proliferation. And we will redouble our efforts to ensure implementation of other Security Council resolutions, which prohibit arms transfers to regional non-state actors, including resolution 1546 in Iraq, resolution 1701 in Lebanon and resolution 2216 in Yemen. We will also ensure that the remaining provisions of resolution 2231, in particular the restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, are rigorously enforced.”

French Mission to the U.N. on October 20: “The expiry of the conventional arms embargo does not in any way mean that all restrictions on the supply, transfer or purchase of arms to or from Iran are now completely lifted. Certain restrictive measures, starting with the European arms embargo and the planned restrictions on missile transfers, will be maintained in accordance with the JCPOA and will remain in force until October 2023. We will ensure that these provisions are strictly respected. We also call on all participants in the JCPOA, as well as possible suppliers and recipients from Iran, to exercise the utmost restraint and responsibility in considering the consequences that possible transfers could have for regional security and stability, and to draw the necessary conclusions.”

German Mission to the U.N. on October 20: “In Iran, civilian and political rights are violated every day. The prisons in Iran are the most abhorrent in the whole region, similar to what we witness in Syria. Religious minorities like the Baha'i are persecuted. On international law, even today Iran still calls for the destruction of Israel and this is just unacceptable. Germany can only urge and continues to urge adherence to international law, the JCPOA and other international agreements.”


Andrew Hanna, a program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, assembled this report.