The Arms Trade and the US-Iran Standoff – a Lucrative Deal for the US, Saudi Arabia, and other Regional Allies?

  1. Introduction

On May 9, President Donald Trump backed out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the “Iran deal”, much to the dismay of America’s allies, Iranians, and members of the Iranian diaspora around the world. Those who supported the destruction of the Iran deal, such as Saudi Arabia, are those who have the most to gain by the demise of what was a historic victory of diplomacy and, indirectly, peacekeeping. However, it is undeniable that this move will have dire consequences for the region and will cause suffering among the most vulnerable people in the region. The main questions are: who is profiting from this heinous move, financially and/or politically? And what is being done to stop such behavior?

  1. Arms Sales and Military Profiteering Fueling Conflict in the Middle East

It is no secret that the United States earns a great deal of revenue from the global arms trade. According to a recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), the US exported more arms than any other nation between 2008 and 2013. (p. 3) The report also finds that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the world’s largest importers of weapons (p. 1), with Saudi Arabia being the world’s second largest importer of arms between 2013 and 2017. (p. 11)

Since 2013, the US has supplied 52% of weapons to the Middle East, which has been fraught with conflict. (p. 10) Further, in 2017, the State Department approved a lucrative arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia that would allow the latter to buy $1.4 billion in military training and equipment. It is possible that this deal, along with other such deals, allows the US and its allies to curb the spread of Iranian influence in the region, while ignoring the resultant and related human rights crises and profiting from the suffering of millions.

Indeed, arms sales from the United States and other countries, such as Russia, France, and Germany, have fueled conflict in the region. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia, for instance, may have contributed to the country’s military intervention in Yemen. While the fact that Iran is under an arms embargo may impact its ability to act as a regional power, supplying arms to Saudi Arabia and other countries embroiled in military activities continues to add fire to conflicts in which they are actors.

  1. Attempts to Check the Arms Trade

In Canada, law professor Daniel Turp attempted to bring an action for judicial review in federal court against the Minister of Foreign Affairs for approving permits to provide light armored vehicles produced by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada to Saudi Arabia. (paras. 1, 2-7) In January 2017, Judge Danièle Tremblay-Lamer dismissed the application, stating that “[t]he role of the Court is not to pass moral judgment on the Minister’s decision to issue the export permits but only to make sure of the legality of such a decision”. (paras. 76, 77) The decision is under appeal. However, in January 2018, a federal court ruled that a new challenge could proceed, as new evidence linked Canadian vehicles to violent conduct directed by the Saudi government against the Shiite minority in Awamiyah, Saudi Arabia.

Also in 2017, the NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade attempted to bring a claim for judicial review against the United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Trade in the Royal Courts of Justice. The main question focused on whether possible violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen mandated the Secretary “to suspend extant export licences to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and to cease granting new licenses, to conform with Government policy to deny such licences where there is a ‘clear risk that the arms might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law’”. (para. 1) The High Court dismissed the claim, (paras. 3, 214) although on appeal, the Court of Appeal granted permission to appeal grounds 1, 2, and 4. It is unlikely that there would be the political will necessary to bring a court claim in a Western country against a company for profiteering on the suffering of Iranian citizens.

Despite these setbacks in national courts, the historical record shows that business activities can raise issues of international liability. In the context of armed conflict, Philipp Ambach argues that “investor protection […] highlights only one set of interests that are worth protecting. At least equally important is the protection of the interests of the civil communities affected by armed conflict […] The vast majority of armed conflicts of our times are, if not based on, at least closely tied in with the economic interests of the belligerent parties or stakeholders behind the scenes.” (See Ambach, p. 51, in Investment Law Within International Law: Integrationist Perspectives, CUP, 2013) Actors – individuals and legal persons – should be held accountable in national and international courts and tribunals. (Ambach, pp. 64-81)

  1. The Human Consequences of the Arms Trade and Sanctions

Going forward, the people who will be hurt by the United States’ destruction of the Iran deal and its enthusiasm for the arms trade are the most vulnerable people inside Iran and in affected countries: ordinary citizens. The arms trade does not serve the purpose of peace, nor does it positively impact sustainable economic, social, and political development of any party involved therein. Additionally, past experience shows that sanctions are not designed to target the government apparatus. They are designed to punish and humiliate ordinary people by robbing them of their dignity, their livelihoods, their health, and their self-esteem.

I hope that in the coming months and years, the United States will not forget that Iranians also deserve all the good things in the world that many Americans take for granted, and that Americans will choose to see their Iranian counterparts as friends rather than enemies. Iranian (and all) lives matter.




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