US should snap back UN sanctions to counter Iran’s drone and missile exports

The ransom-for-hostages deal between Washington and Tehran will not change a grim fact: Russia is pummeling Ukraine with kamikaze drones made and supplied by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The U.S. has condemned these actions as a “direct violation” of a United Nations embargo. Yet this critical restriction ends in less than two months, and Washington still has no plan to extend it.  

The Biden administration must not idly stand by as Tehran and Russia strengthen their dangerous alliance. It must work with its European partners to maintain the drone embargo and a related missile embargo. Moreover, the UN Security Council must snap back previous international sanctions on Iran before the clock runs out. 

This month, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield used America’s first press conference of its UN Security Council presidency, which it holds throughout August, to call for a UN investigation of Moscow’s and Tehran’s violations. But an inquiry at this stage would have little utility, since the drone embargo sunsets on Oct. 18, 2023, with the Biden administration’s tacit support.  

Drones have become a low-cost yet increasingly lethal weapon for Russia’s war on Ukraine. Since late 2022, U.S. officials estimate that Iran has provided Russia with hundreds of the small, technically advanced devices, with catastrophic results for Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure.  

In recent months, Moscow’s drone strikes have killed and injured dozens, destroying key energy and industrial assets and disrupting Kyiv’s critical exports. The White House says Iran is also outfitting Russia with its own supply line and factories to churn out even greater quantities of drones. To counter Tehran’s denials about its provision of drones to Moscow, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency is even inviting foreign officials to view Iranian drone debris collected in Ukraine.

For now, Tehran has paused plans to sell missiles to Moscow and appears to be waiting for the end of the UN missile embargo. As Russia ramps up its air campaign against Ukraine, Iran’s missiles will increase terror and destruction.  

The expiring embargoes were included in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which passed in July 2015 after the finalization of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. exited that deal in 2018, and Iran abandoned the accord in January 2020, then drastically ramped up its nuclear program after President Joe Biden’s election in November 2020, exploiting his stated desire to restore the deal. 

In April 2021, the Biden administration and its European partners — the United Kingdom, France and Germany — embarked on more than two years of fruitless talks with Iran and are still holding out hope that Iran will revive Obama’s Iran nuclear deal or a more limited version of it. They are concerned that Tehran will use the restoration of UN sanctions as a justification to enrich uranium to atomic-weapons grade and possibly make nuclear weapons.  

Washington and these European powers would therefore take the least confrontational approach, retaining national and EU sanctions against Iran’s missile and drone programs instead of lifting them in October, on Resolution 2231’s timetable. They would continue to condemn Iran’s participation in the Ukraine war but stand by as the last international prohibition on Iran is lifted. 

They do not have to be bystanders. The West could invoke Resolution 2231’s “snapback” mechanism, which allows parties to restore previous UN sanctions resolutions against Iran in the case of significant non-compliance.  

As remaining participants in the original nuclear deal with Iran, the UK, France and Germany can put the council on notice, forcing it either to pass a resolution maintaining the lifting of UN sanctions within 30 days or restore all the sanctions. And as a permanent Security Council member, the U.S. can veto any such resolution, meaning that all prior UN sanctions resolutions would immediately be reinstated.  

Snapback would also reimpose on Iran a UN arms embargo, which ended in 2020, and revive prior nuclear-related restrictions, including an international prohibition on Iran enriching uranium. As the current Security Council president, the U.S. could easily add the matter to the council’s agenda. 

This action is critically important, since some countries use UN resolutions as the basis for national legislation and sanctions efforts. Come October, absent Western action, those nations’ regulations may no longer prohibit nuclear or weapons transfers to Iran. 

Unfortunately, Russia is not the only country interested in Iran’s drones. They can already be found in Venezuela and Ethiopia, with other countries lining up to purchase Iranian weaponry. Western governments urgently need more tools to counter their spread. Restoring the resolutions provides the Biden administration and its allies an additional basis to hold violating governments, entities and individuals accountable for such trade with Iran. 

As Tehran and Moscow increasingly work together to undermine NATO’s defensive campaign in Ukraine, the Biden administration must lead the Security Council’s snapback of sanctions. Without this, Ukraine will have to prepare for a new onslaught of Russian attacks, courtesy of Iran. 

Anthony Ruggiero, former National Security Council senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration, is a senior fellow and senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the program. 

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