US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday urged the UN Security Council to extend an arms embargo on Iran, warning that the Middle East’s stability was at risk, but he faced wide skepticism over US threats to trigger sanctions.
The United States is adamant about prolonging the ban on conventional arms sales to its adversary which expires in October and has threatened to use a disputed legal move to force a return of UN sanctions on Iran.
Russia and China, which stand to gain major arms contracts from Iran, oppose an extension of the embargo which was established for five years under a 2015 resolution that blessed a nuclear accord with Iran negotiated under former US president Barack Obama.
Taking his case to the Security Council, Pompeo — an outspoken opponent of the nuclear accord — said that ending the ban would lead Iran to send more advanced weapons to regional allies such as the Palestinian militant movement Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“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,” Pompeo told the session, held virtually due to coronavirus precautions.
He also said that Iran could become a “rogue weapons dealer” after the ban, selling arms as far away as Venezuela, where President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to topple leftist leader Nicolas Maduro.
The Security Council session publicly unveiled a report that found that cruise missiles and drones used in attacks last year on Saudi Arabia — including on Abqaiq, the world’s largest oil processing center — included material 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 are lifted,” Pompeo said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was due to address the session later Tuesday.
Trump, who has close relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, in 2018 pulled out of the nuclear accord, calling it “disastrous,” and slapped sweeping unilateral sanctions on Iran, which had been promised economic relief for abiding by the deal.
Iran has since taken small but escalating steps away from compliance with the nuclear accord as it presses for sanctions relief.
But the Trump administration has made the novel argument that the United States remains a participant in the nuclear deal as it was listed in a 2015 Security Council resolution — and therefore can trigger UN sanctions if it determines that Iran is violating its terms, including on the arms embargo.
“We cannot accept an attempt to get a blessing for the US-desired maximum pressure policy through the Security Council,” said the Russian ambassador, Vasily Nebenzia.
“What we get in the end is an uncontrollable escalation,” he said.
China’s UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, said the five-year arms embargo — itself a compromise between the Obama administration and Moscow and Beijing — should end as scheduled under the 2015 resolution.
“Having quit the JCPOA, the US is no longer a participant and has no right to trigger snapback at the Security Council,” Zhang said, using the official name of the deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
European allies of the United States have voiced support for extending the embargo but also oppose new sanctions, saying the bigger issue is Iran’s nuclear program.
“Unilateral attempts to trigger UN sanctions snapback are incompatible with our current efforts to preserve the JCPOA,” said the British envoy, Jonathan Allen.
Olof Skoog, the European Union representative at the United Nations, noted that the United States has not participated in any meetings on the nuclear deal since announcing its withdrawal in May 2018.
Some analysts see the US push as a way to kill the nuclear deal altogether, potentially days before Trump faces re-election.