Diplomats at the United Nations have less than six months to stop Iran – the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, violator of nuclear nonproliferation agreements and catalyst for regional warfare – from buying weapons from the world’s most eager salesmen, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
The U.N. arms embargo on Iran is scheduled to sunset starting in October, and if it does, Tehran and its terror proxies, regional allies and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will be stronger than ever. Our first priority should be to extend and strengthen the embargo. But America needs a backup plan to mitigate the Iranian threat, which was exacerbated by the Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration.
To critics of the decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it is important to remember that while the U.S. was a party to the deal, Iran took American hostages, test-launched multiple ballistic missiles and extended its unbroken record of being the world’s foremost sponsor of global terrorism. The regime’s belligerence since May 2018 is simply an extension of that long-established behavioral pattern.
Over the past year alone, Iran has attacked or seized oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, shot down a U.S. drone, struck Saudi Aramco facilities and hit a U.S. base in Iraq with ballistic missiles. It has long supported the Assad regime in Syria and inflamed the civil war in Yemen by arming the Houthi rebels. In fact, just in February, U.S. naval forces intercepted a number of Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis that included, among other weapons, anti-tank guided missiles and loitering surface-to-air missiles.
We cannot afford for such a dangerous regime to acquire Russian and Chinese arms, the likelihood of which is not a hypothetical thought exercise. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reports that both nations are planning to sell Iran weaponry, including fighter jets, main battle tanks, attack helicopters and modern naval capabilities when the embargo is lifted.
A more heavily armed Iran will certainly increase regional tensions and conflicts, and may feel emboldened to increase its horrific domestic repression. At least 1,500 protesters were murdered last winter during a bloody crackdown by security forces. And, despite efforts to rein in its nuclear program, Iran is enriching uranium at higher levels than it was before the Iran deal, hiding nuclear sites and improving its ballistic missile technology.
It is evident, now more than ever, that the U.S. needs a robust plan to keep Russia, China and Iran from changing the security paradigm if Tehran suddenly finds itself free to arm itself with some of the world’s most advanced weapons. Rather than wait for the sunset clauses to take effect, there are three immediate steps the Trump administration should consider:
_Preparing to impose macroeconomic costs for conventional arms proliferation by Russia and China.
_Revisiting old collective security mechanisms.
_Considering new mechanisms to bolster global defenses against Iranian aggression.
On the economic front, the administration should prepare a series of harsh economic sanctions that would be unilaterally imposed on Russia, China and other U.S. adversaries should they engage in conventional arms proliferation with Iran. Congress could find models in laws mandating sanctions for the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons.
On the security front, the administration – with cooperation from allies and assistance from regional partners – should look for ways to strengthen the Gulf Cooperation Council’s interoperable ballistic missile defense architecture. Providing responsible increases for the GCC’s missile defenses might deter an Iranian attempt to target the territory of our allies. Such a move might be advisable even without the likelihood of the arms embargo expiring, as Iran has shown stunning military incompetence this year in the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet and the sinking of its own warship.
Finally, the U.S. should consider resurrecting talks on the Middle East Strategic Alliance to counter and prevent Iran’s escalating terrorism and cybersecurity threats. We need to coordinate with our allies on intelligence collection, terror finance and targeted actions to keep Americans safe; revisiting the formation of a unified security bloc of U.S. partner states would allow us to keep a close watch on Iran’s propaganda efforts and provide opportunity to build greater unity with critical regional allies.
Allowing the arms embargo to sunset will only enhance Iran’s ability to pursue these goals. We should prevent that. But we cannot wait to build alternatives if our efforts fall short.
Mark S. Kirk, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, is a senior adviser at United Against Nuclear Iran.
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