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The Case for Embargoing Arms to Iran

October 18, 1987|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," writes on the Middle East from Cyprus.

NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Only those who do not want an arms embargo against Iran argue that one should not be applied because it cannot succeed. A look at a map will show that an arms embargo, if applied, could succeed--not easily, but effectively.

Opponents of embargo are all special pleaders. Governments argue against it because they want to please Iran, or at least not displease it, since it is a country strategically situated; or those governments want to go on selling arms to Iran to help keep national arms industries going. Arms dealers simply want to go on selling arms to make money. Others may just not have bothered to look at the map.

An arms embargo could only be applied if the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council approved it; the Big Five have already done something unprecedented about the Gulf War when they agreed on the tough Security Council Resolution 598.

One argument used against an embargo is that Iran receives arms from so many suppliers, it would be impossible to close off every source of supply. But what matters is not the number of sources but the other end of the supply line--the few points of entry into Iran through which all the arms have to be funneled, from wherever they may originate.

In the case of Iran, arms have to go through precisely four entrances, all of which can be closed. Smugglers may be able to get small quantities of arms through, such as Afghan Shia moujahedeen selling U.S. Stinger missiles to their Iranian co-religionists. But the big boys, the arms dealers handling large quantities of heavy weapons, have to move their materiel across frontiers more or less openly, as in fact has been the case. For example, Israel is one of Iran's oldest and largest arms suppliers and observers have long known that Israel's consignments either go by sea from Israeli ports, especially from Eilat to Iranian ports on the gulf, or by air in planes that reach Iran by overflying Turkey.

One other argument of despair is based on the false analogy of the South African situation. Sanctions did not work against that country because many important countries refused to cooperate. An arms embargo backed by the Big Five could force every country in the world to fall in line. South Africa, furthermore, because of its geographic location bounded by the oceans on three sides, has an open maritime frontier and above it open airspace. Arms shipments from any country with its own port do not have to cross any frontier to reach South Africa. Iran's situation is completely different. It is virtually landlocked, hemmed in by other countries on all four sides; therefore the approaches to Iran can be completely controlled by those other countries. A maritime blockade would be most effective because the large quantities of heavy military equipment that Iran needs can only be brought in by ship. The entire southern coastline of the Persian Gulf is Arab and therefore, in principle, hostile. After the Iran-Iraq War began, there was a certain amount of transshipment trade to Iran through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; lately, because of Iran's increasing hostility, that has stopped.

Only through the ports of the United Arab Emirates, especially Dubai, does transshipment continue. Though Dubai transships several billion dollars' worth of goods a year, almost all by single-masted dhows, no one suggests that Dubai would dare handle military materiel that could be used against Iraq or Saudi Arabia. The opponents of embargo make much of Iran's thousand-mile coastline on the gulf, which would be difficult to oversee. But every single ship in and out of the gulf has to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, with a navigable channel only a few miles wide and easy to control.

If the Security Council votes an arms embargo, it would mean that the five permanent members, especially the Soviet Union and China, agree to cooperate with implementation. Hence the navies of China and the Soviet Union could join the three Western council members to enforce a blockade of the strait, preventing military cargoes from reaching Iran. The small Iranian navy is in no position to challenge the power and authority of an international or U.N. armada.

The air and land approaches to Iran run across--and can be controlled by--three countries: Pakistan to the east, the Soviet Union to the north and Turkey to the west. Afghanistan, although situated to make small-scale smuggling possible, is an enemy of Iran. If the United States told its junior partners, Turkey and Pakistan, to block military supplies to Iran, they could and would do so--even with a certain degree of willingness, since they are on bad terms with Iran for its support of Shia subversives in both countries.

The Soviets might support an embargo for the same reason--anger at Iranian-backed Shia subversion. Their control of air traffic would be particularly significant because all Iranian flights to and from the West go through Soviet airspace.

The world community and the United Nations--in effect, the five permanent members of the Security Council--could, through an effective arms embargo, force Iran toward accepting a comprehensive cease-fire and peace negotiations. The means and methods exist and they can be made to work. What is lacking is world will and determination.

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