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Congress threatens to go ballistic over Russian arms sales to Iran

Lawmakers demand tough sanctions on conventional weapons violations.

Congress has a message for Russian arms dealers eyeing Iran: Forget about it.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wants to force the Obama administration to harshly deal with any conventional arms transfers to Tehran. The move is part of a three-pronged sanctions strategy that would also renew the expiring Iran Sanctions Act and punish Iran for its recent ballistic missile launches.

“In the event there are violations, the snap-back provisions that are a part of the [nuclear] agreement mean that there has to be something to snap back to,” Corker told Voice of America last week. “So extending that, dealing with conventional weapons and dealing with ballistic missiles are three areas that I think we have a possibility of reaching consensus on.”

While those missiles have received most of the attention, recent reports that Russia is considering selling Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and military helicopters have also drawn congressional ire. Under the nuclear deal with Iran, such weapons transfers remain prohibited for five years unless authorized by the UN Security Council, but Corker is worried that the current administration may be reluctant to harshly punish such violations to avoid undermining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Russia is getting ready to sell, or has announced that they're going to sell, Su-30s,” Corker told Al-Monitor. “Hopefully it's not going to occur, but we're trying to do what we can to prevent that kind of thing from occurring.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The chairman is working with ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., and other lawmakers on the sanctions package, but few have expressed public support for targeting conventional weapons transfers. One exception is Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is cooperating with Corker on his bill while also eyeing a potential broader effort.

“Sen. Menendez supports the idea,” a Menendez aide told Al-Monitor, “albeit he is studying the possibility of doing a separate comprehensive legislative proposal to encompass missiles and terrorism, plus much more.”

The House Foreign Affairs panel is also working on legislation.

“I think that any entity, any country that is circumventing the ban on selling weapons to Iran ought to be sanctioned,” the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Eliot Engel, told Al-Monitor. “My gut is that we need to punish Iran for its ballistic missile nonsense and also punish whatever entities try to sell them weapons, which I think is a direct violation of the JCPOA.”

Corker's concerns date back to last year's debate over the nuclear deal, when he repeatedly raised concerns that Iran would be free to wreak havoc in the region once sanctions are lifted. 

“For some unknown reason,” Corker told a home-state newspaper last summer, “the administration thought it was sensible to remove the conventional weapons ban in five years, the ballistic missile technology embargo in eight years and immediately lift the ban on ballistic missile testing.”

The congressional push gained new momentum this week after Russia announced that it believes the UN Security Council resolution that implements the JCPOA — UNSCR 2231 — removes the previous ban on missile testing. The Obama administration rejects that interpretation, but veto-wielding Russia is unlikely to go along with sanctions.

Likewise, UNSCR 2231 contains language on arms sales that has some lawmakers scratching their heads. Instead of the blanket ban on conventional weapons transfers called for under Security Council Resolution 1929 of 2010, the new UN resolution allows such transfers to go forward unless the Security Council objects.

The resolution was “drafted/structured in a way to appeal to Iran's sensitivities, while at the same time imposing clear obligations with respect to certain prohibited transfers,” a US official told Al-Monitor. “Iran felt that blanket bans didn't look good and were too reminiscent of the Security Council's previous approach to the Iran nuclear issue. We were willing to accommodate this in our drafting, provided that the UNSCR [United Nations Security Council Resolution] still imposed clear and legally binding measures and that no arms transfer could be approved without US agreement.”

The United States is highly unlikely to approve such transfers, the source added.

“The United States has no plans to sell Iran any weapons systems,” the source said. “Given Iran's support to terrorism, [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad's war against the Syrian people and violence by extremist groups, we cannot imagine any situation in the foreseeable future in which we would approve any shipment of arms to or from Iran.”

The conventional weapons language says Security Council approval is needed for member states to “participate in and permit” the “supply, sale or transfer” of conventional weapons to Iran. Some observers are concerned that Russia may sign arms sales deals with Iran in the near future with the caveat that they wouldn't be delivered until the weapons ban is lifted in five years.

Corker wasn't ready to conclude that such an unapproved sale, without a subsequent transfer, would by itself violate the UN resolution. He did however express concern that the Obama administration might be too keen to give Iran a pass.

“Of course the State Department would think that would be fine,” he said. “Why do you think Congress is attempting to take action here?”

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