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Biden must act on Iran’s drone and missile transfers

AP Photo/Roman Hrytsyna
Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 17, 2022.

“The fact is this: Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that … are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.” That’s how National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby framed Iran’s growing involvement in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Fast-emerging facts on the ground support his assertion.

Ukrainian forces reportedly have killed ten Iranian advisors in a strike against Russian positions. In recent weeks, the Russian military bombarded Ukraine with Iranian-made kamikaze drones like the Shahed-136 – more aptly called a loitering munition. Procured from Tehran this summer, Vladimir Putin’s forces began using the Shahed against key energy infrastructure in Ukraine in September, killing at least five civilians.

Tehran’s transfer of these weapons violates UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2231, the resolution enshrining the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which also bans Tehran until 2023 from importing or exporting specific missile and military-related hardware. While the Biden administration has expressed interest in countering Iranian precision-strike capabilities, the pressure it has levied thus far has been inadequate to counter Tehran’s evolving unmanned aerial threats.

Washington must do better.

In fact, Iran is set to transfer more Shahed-136s to Russia, allowing Putin to conserve his long-range strike assets and also fight in a more cost-efficient manner. Case in point: The Shahed reportedly costs only around $20,000 apiece. Rebranded as the Geran-2, the propeller-powered Shahed can travel an estimated 1,000 kilometers carrying a small warhead weighing under 50 kilograms.

Tehran reportedly also will soon provide to Moscow precision-strike short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), known as the Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar. Both are single-stage solid-propellant projectiles, variants of which Iran has used in recent military operations. This missile transfer would be a historic first between the Islamic Republic and the Russian Federation, and also constitutes a violation of UNSC resolution 2231.

The United States, as well as Britain, France, and Germany (the “E3”), have decried the Iranian drone transfers as a violation of resolution 2231. The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, as well as the EU Council, sanctioned three Iranian persons and one entity supporting Tehran’s drone efforts. Yet America and the E3 could penalize Iran’s violations and prevent them from becoming legal internationally by triggering the reimposition of UN sanctions that were lifted by the Iran nuclear deal — but they have failed to do so. This is in spite of the fact that Iran is in flagrant non-compliance with the atomic accord and, during 18 months of talks, has refused to revive it.

The drone and missile transfers specifically violate key clauses in Annex B of resolution 2231, provisions that remain in effect only until October 2023. Paragraph 4 of the annex states that nations require permission from the UNSC to engage in “the supply, sale or transfer directly or indirectly from their territories, or by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft to or from Iran, or for the use in or benefit of Iran, and whether or not originating in their territories, of all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology set out in S/2015/546” — which contains the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which was submitted to the Security Council when it passed resolution 2231 in July 2015. Its provisions lay out equipment and technologies that the UNSC agreed were prohibited for transfer to or from Iran: Category II, Item 19.A covers both the missiles and drones that Iran is transferring to Russia.

Russia and Iran have not sought written permission from the UNSC for drone or prospective missile transfers.

The drone transfers also would have violated a past arms embargo on Iran contained in resolution 2231. The embargo, which expired in October 2020, had similar language regarding permission for states to import from or export to Iran weapons categorized under the UN Register of Conventional Arms. Category IV of the register includes combat aircraft and unmanned combat aerial vehicles, whereas Category VII includes missiles and missiles launchers “capable of delivering a warhead or weapon of destruction to a range of at least 25 kilometres.”

Iran’s expanding arms proliferation radius reflects the lack of constraint the Islamic Republic feels from the Biden administration’s overall Iran policy. Iranian drones are not just a Middle Eastern battlefield phenomenon as they can be found as far away as Venezuela, Ethiopia, and now among Russia’s forces in Ukraine.

To date, team Biden has only twice sanctioned elements of Tehran’s drone program. In October 2021, it designated key persons and entities leading and supporting the program, and acted again in September 2022 after Iran’s transfer of these systems to Russia. Washington should increase the pace, scale, and scope of these designations to expose and penalize the supply chains and financial entities that feed it.

America should also coordinate designations with European partners to multi-lateralize this blacklisting and expand the “no-go” zone for Iranian technology procurement agents and foreign suppliers. This offers policymakers an opportunity to share best practices on sanctions implementation and enforcement, as well as enhanced Iran and Russia export and financial controls.

Washington and the E3 can move this cooperation further by enacting the snapback mechanism in resolution 2231 to restore all prior UN penalties on the Islamic Republic, including permanent arms transfer and ballistic missile testing prohibitions.

With protests raging across Iran and Tehran’s support for Putin’s imperial war in Ukraine deepening, the Biden administration should seize the opportunity to reset the chessboard against the Islamic Republic. Step one requires recognizing that Iranian weapons proliferation will increase so long as Washington sits on the sidelines.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program. They both contribute to FDD’s Iran program. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro.

Tags arms deal arms sales arms transfer Biden Biden foreign policy Foreign relations of Iran Iran Iran nuclear agreement Iran nuclear deal Iran sanctions Iranian drones Iranian missiles Joe Biden John Kirby Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military Russian war in Ukraine snapback sanctions Tehran United Nations Vladimir Putin

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