One can only be thankful that Russia now claims that in the wake of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 – the latest enactment under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter putting sanctions on Iran for its defiance of its nonproliferation obligations and a growing list of other legally-binding resolutions – Moscow can no longer provide Tehran with the potent S-300 surface-to-air missiles it had previously promised the Iranians. It was a disgrace for Russia to offer the S-300 the first place, since at the time it agreed to sell Iran that missile (in 2007) everyone understood that the purpose of this system was to defend Iran’s unlawful nuclear weapons program against possible preemption.
It would, of course, have been an even bigger disgrace for Moscow actually to provide the system, and it was disheartening – to say the least – that Russian officials told the press on June 16 that the S-300 wasn’t covered by Resolution 1929. So I’m certainly glad that an anonymous Kremlin official now claims the S-300 deal cannot go through in light of the new sanctions.
The problem, however, is that the anonymous Russian source for this seemingly reassuring press spin is just blowing smoke. As initial Kremlin statements after Resolution 1929’s passage correctly made clear – and as Russian and American officials are now apparently both trying to obscure – Moscow seems to have carved out its S-300 deal from the arms embargo that is otherwise imposed by the resolution. Let’s look at the details.
Operative paragraph 8 of Resolution 1929 imposes an expanded arms embargo on Iran. Enacted pursuant to the Security Council’s authority under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, this provision says that:
“all States shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran, from or through their territories or by their nationals or individuals subject to their jurisdiction, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, or related materiel, including spare parts, or items as determined by the Security Council or the Committee established pursuant to resolution 1737 (2006) (‘the Committee’), decides further that all States shall prevent the provision to Iran by their nationals or from or through their territories of technical training, financial resources or services, advice, other services or assistance related to the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms and related materiel, and, in this context, calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and restraint over the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture and use of all other arms and related materiel.”
It sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Paragraph 8 is a legally-binding obligation, and on its face looks quite impressive. But all is not quite what it seems.
Under Resolution 1929, it is thus now illegal to provide Iran with “missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.” But anyone who reads the Register’s definitions – and I’d encourage the NPF reader to consult Part VII of the Register’s “Standard Form E” for reporting conventional arms transfers, which provides the definitions in question – will note that they do not cover systems such as the S-300. In the definitions used by the Register, “missiles and missile launchers” includes:
“Guided or unguided rockets, ballistic or cruise missiles capable of delivering a warhead or weapon of destruction to a range of at least 25 kilometres, and means designed or modified specifically for launching such missiles or rockets, if not covered by categories I through VI. For the purpose of the Register, this sub-category includes remotely piloted vehicles with the characteristics for missiles as defined above but does not include ground-to-air missiles.”
Note that last bit: the Register’s definition expressly “does not include ground-to-air missiles.” The S-300, of course, is a ground-to-air missile. I don’t know about you, but my guess is that Resolution 1929’s choice of this definition is not just some weird and unfortunate accident.
Here we have a joke played upon us by whomever crafted the Resolution: the much-vaunted arms embargo that has now been imposed upon Iran carefully carves out an exception for the most significant and proliferation-facilitating conventional arms transfer presently on the horizon. It’s nice, of course, that it is now illegal to give Iran battle tanks and armored personnel carriers, but the transfer about which everyone – including Iran – cared the most was the S-300. How amazing to have exempted it.
The Obama Administration, which negotiated and agreed to the sanctions resolution, clearly realizes this. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, for example, did not describe transfer of the S-300 as being prohibited, noting instead merely that countries are expected to “exercise vigilance and restraint in the sale or transfer of all other arms and related materiel” and praising Russia’s “restraint in the transfer of the S-300 missile system to Iran.” There is no mistaking Crowley’s careful phrasing in describing Moscow’s decision to exercise discretion, at least for now, in not transferring a weapons system that is not embargoed.
The Obama Administration is understandably eager to make sure we know that Russia does not, at present, choose to provide air defenses for Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The White House is also clearly not eager to admit that the Kremlin persuaded it to agree to a resolution that actually permits this. Both of these things are true, however, and both deserve to be borne in mind as we evaluate the likely impact of Resolution 1929 upon Iran’s behavior, upon the credibility of the nonproliferation regime, and upon the Obama Administration’s reputation for diplomatic competence.
-- Christopher Ford