Iran thinks it has reason to celebrate this week. With the world distracted in the aftermath of Hamas’ assault on Israel, the Oct. 18 expiration of UN Security Council restrictions on Iran’s missile program barely registered in the media. Tehran can now sell its military technology openly and reinvest the proceeds to buy materials to further develop its weapons programs.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry was enthusiastic when the deadline passed.
“As of today, there will be no restrictions on transfer of missile-related items, services and technology to/from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and cooperation in all military and defense areas would be carried out, without any restriction, based on the needs and discretion of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the Ministry declared.
The Security Council acknowledged that sanctions had lapsed, confirming that “the Secretariat has removed on 19 October 2023 from the Security Council website the list of 23 individuals and 61 entities subject to […] restrictive measures.”
The Western public should understand what this means. Attacks on Israel are expanding beyond Gaza. Iran’s proxy Hezbollah is testing Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, while violence in the West Bank has surged since Hamas’ Oct. 7 offensive. Now, Iran’s ability to wreak havoc far beyond its own territory will increase multifold unless it is stopped.
Measures Still in Place
Tehran’s enthusiasm is a bit premature, however. After the expiration of restrictions under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United Kingdom and European Union announced they would continue sanctions on more than 300 entities connected to Iran’s missile programs.
In addition, the United States sanctioned those “that are enabling Iran’s destabilizing ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle programs.” Washington also issued a joint statement with 46 of the 105 members of the Proliferation Security Initiative — a global effort to stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials — committing to undertake domestic measures to counter Iran’s destabilizing ballistic missile-related activities.
Simply put, responsible governments will not be giving the world’s greatest state sponsor of terror a free pass.
These measures alone will not be enough, though, to contain Iran. Tehran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have evaded sanctions for years, smuggling weapons around the world via various state and non-state actors. For instance, the U.S. has intercepted Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis in Yemen. This past August, the Israel Defense Forces foiled a plot to smuggle Iran-made explosives through Jordan into Israel. These are but the tip of the iceberg.
With Iran getting the go-ahead to proliferate, the danger posed to free societies will increase tremendously. The one option available to keep Iran in check is Resolution 2231’s snapback mechanism, which reinstates restrictions that lapsed on Oct. 18, including all Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran from 2006 through 2015. If used, that mechanism also restores the embargo on Iran’s conventional arms trade that expired in 2020 under the JCPOA sunset provisions.
The international community may have hesitated to utilize the snapback for fear that the JCPOA and its associated enforcement mechanisms will effectively become obsolete, or from a misplaced fear that the snapback would further provoke Iran. Tehran, however, does not need a reason to be antagonized. Its statement gloating at the passing of the sunset provisions included warnings to its adversaries. Claiming that “Iranian military capabilities, including ballistic missiles, are exclusively for self-defense,” the Iranian regime said it reserved the right “to take appropriate measures to secure its national interests” in the event that efforts are undertaken now to impose sanctions or restrictions on Iran’s “defensive engagements.” Such bluster is a thinly veiled threat to any state levying its own domestic sanctions.
Still Time to Push Back at Iran
The snapback would have been most effective if invoked before Oct. 18, but it is not too late. The whole of the JCPOA remains in effect until Oct. 18, 2025, allowing two more years to snap back the punishing sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. Indeed, as Iranian diplomats began to negotiate more than a decade ago, the Statistics Center of Iran acknowledged that the Iranian economy had shrunk 5.4 percent.
The Iranian economy is fragile, and the Iranian people remain frustrated that the regime would rather invest in insurgencies and terrorism than education and prosperity. Reinstating the lapsed UN sanctions would cripple Iran, making the snapback the strongest tool available to European diplomats to stop Iran’s weapons industry and its sale of lethal goods to terrorist groups.
The UN rejected attempts by the United States to invoke the snapback in 2020, asserting that it forfeited its right to do so after withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. But the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — the remaining signatories to the JCPOA who are opposed to Iran, collectively known as the E3 — still have the power to use it.
The E3’s refusal to invoke the snapback prior to Oct. 18 was a missed opportunity, but one that is not entirely lost. The crisis emanating from Gaza and the potential for ensuing regional instability through Iran’s support of terror groups is a tragedy, but it also offers a look at what can happen if Iran goes unchecked. Iran must be stopped before time runs out. The E3 still has the power to do so, if only they would.
Elizabeth Samson is an Associate Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a former Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute.