The already-volatile situation in the Middle East is likely to be pitched into even greater discord by mid-October, as the probability increases that an arms embargo imposed on Iran will be lifted. The move comes in accordance with the provisions of the nuclear deal signed between the major world powers and Iran in 2015.
For most countries, purchasing advanced weaponry whenever they wish to upgrade their defense systems is a legitimate pursuit and vital to deterring threats to their survival, repelling any forces seeking to annex them, and protecting their security and sovereignty. With some states, however, there is a clear negative ulterior aim behind them wishing to purchase sophisticated offensive weapons: Namely to transform the regional balance of power, which would enable them to become dominant powers and facilitate the implementation of their expansionist programs at the expense of the region’s security. As historical experience shows, enabling the ambitions of rogue states will lead to greatly aggravating hostilities and ultimately to war or multiple wars. Such a situation becomes even more dangerous when such states are ruled by irresponsible extremist regimes that pay no heed to international laws and norms.
Iran is one of these rogue states ruled by an extremist regime, with its hard-line theocratic leadership single-mindedly pursuing an extremist vision encompassing regional and global expansionism, referred to as “exporting the revolution.”
The toxic results of the Iranian regime’s policies can be seen in Arab nations. Iran spends billions on troops and proxy militias to serve its sectarian and expansionist objectives, while neglecting the economy and the Iranian people. Among other things, these troops and militias pose a constant threat to the international maritime routes used to transport strategic commodities. For example, they carry out attacks on international oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf and use Iranian-made ballistic missiles and other weapons to threaten the safety and security of the Gulf and Arab nations that reject Iran’s destabilizing activities. The regime transfers and smuggles weapons to its heavily-armed proxy militias in conflict hotspots such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Iran continues to pursue its objectives without considering international resolutions, including those banning it from providing the Houthis with weapons. This is in addition to Iran shooting down a civilian airliner in January.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced in February that Iran intended to upgrade its military force. This was followed this month by a complaint from the spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, who described US demands to renew the arms embargo as a breach of international resolutions. Unfortunately, the US faces difficulties in forging a global consensus to reimpose the embargo at the UN Security Council.
The dangers of Iran purchasing sophisticated weaponry it cannot manufacture domestically — such as fighter jets, helicopter gunships, air defense systems like the Russian S-400, artillery systems, warships, armored vehicles, combat tanks, and military spare parts — after the lifting of the embargo can be clearly seen in the light of the following issues.
Firstly, a regional imbalance of power makes war much more likely. According to the theory of force in international relations, the likelihood of conflict leading to war increases when the disparity of power between two or more countries grows, and decreases when this disparity reduces. Iran obtaining sophisticated weaponry would shift the balance of power equation in its favor, after regional powers had achieved parity in military strength. This clearly increases the likelihood of disputes and further wars in a vital region that is indispensable for Western economies.
Iran attaining regional superiority in terms of military strength would also lead it to step up its threats to international navigation by intensifying its attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf, which would harm the economies of oil importers and exporters, and deploying its militias to block the passage of ships through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait. This would prompt the countries harmed by these actions to respond, throwing a volatile region into wars with disastrous consequences.
Secondly, the boosting of the power of militias at the expense of states. When Iran can purchase weapons, this would change the geopolitical equation in the countries where Tehran has inflamed conflicts for its own interests. After lifting the arms embargo, Iran would be able to increase the smuggling or sale of sophisticated weaponry such as drones to militias in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. This would enable its militias to strike onshore or offshore oil targets and extend their operations to some African or Asian countries where Iran exercises influence, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan, considering its efforts to open communications channels with the Taliban. Iran’s military presence would be strengthened, undermining calls to expel its militias from Syria and increasing sectarian tensions.
The behavior of totalitarian, ideologically driven regimes such as Iran’s indicates that they are the worst among all political systems in terms of their leaders’ hasty, ill-conceived decision-making and eagerness to use the most destructive weapons. In addition, given the supreme leader’s supposed divine authority, it is not only considered unlawful but also heretical for even the most senior military commanders to hesitate in implementing his orders, or to object to or even question them, since they are considered sacred. Such blind and absolute worship of the leader and designation of his orders literally as holy writ clearly shows the danger of Iran’s acquisition of sophisticated weaponry. When the leader’s orders are considered sacred, there is no doubt about the potentially disastrous results.
Fears of nuclear reprisal helped prevent the outbreak of atomic war between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with both parties prioritizing the lives of their citizens over gains from war. This is not a concern for theocratic regimes such as Iran’s.
The US administration’s chilling realization of the Iranian regime’s behavior explains the change in its policy toward Iran, resulting in Washington’s maximum pressure strategy to contain Tehran’s belligerence. The possible lifting of the arms embargo on Tehran has led the US to initiate an international diplomatic campaign to clarify the gains that Iran would make. The US has made it clear that Tehran would sell weapons to its proxies, triggering an arms race between regional states and fomenting greater conflict.
The decision to reimpose the arms embargo on Iran would maintain some balance among the regional powers, preventing Iran’s proxies from getting access to weapons. It would also prevent the outbreak of a potentially devastating arms race across a vital region, as well as achieve the objective of forcing Iran to change its behavior in a way that curbs its misadventures overseas and forces it to yield to international pressures to modify the nuclear deal and curb its missiles program.
When the leader’s orders are considered sacred, there is no doubt about the potentially disastrous results.
A change in the regime’s behavior is probable as the intensified sanctions continue to put pressure on it, leading its long-suffering citizens to stage demonstrations rejecting its policies at home and abroad, which have resulted in them experiencing disastrous socioeconomic conditions.
Some might argue that Beijing and Moscow will inevitably oppose any resolution to reimpose the arms embargo. While this seems probable, it would be an unwise policy for China and Russia as, not only would they provide fresh evidence of their support for rogue regimes, but they would also increase the number of countries resentful of their support for Iran. They should also bear in mind that any such strategy would require them to choose between prioritizing their alliance with Iran and maintaining their regional interests in the event of further wars facilitated by their own unwise policies.