The UK, France, and Germany are just six weeks away from a major betrayal of Ukraine. A deal is about to expire that will empower radical Islamists in Tehran to transfer ballistic missiles to Russia for use against the Ukrainian people. President Volodymyr Zelensky has the power to stop it from happening, but to do so he’ll need to pressure London, Paris, and Berlin to trigger the snapback of United Nations (UN) sanctions on Iran.

While the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is effectively dead, the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) that endorsed the deal is alive and well. UNSCR 2231 repealed and replaced all prior resolutions on Iran, eliminating an international demand for the regime to halt its enrichment of uranium and abandoning an outright prohibition on its testing of nuclear-capable missiles. It also established a timeline for other UN sanctions on Iran to expire, ending a conventional arms embargo in October 2020 and terminating a missile embargo in October 2023 – next month.

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Over the last year, Iran has transferred hundreds of armed drones to Russia for use inside Ukraine with thousands more planned. These drones have inflicted enormous damage and terrorized civilian populations. Russia is reportedly now domestically producing Iranian drones as well. When the missile embargo expires, Iran may consider transferring short-range ballistic missiles, too.

Ukrainian leaders may not believe these UN restrictions matter much, but they do. Believe it or not, Russian and Iranian propaganda rely heavily on international law to claim legitimacy in their illicit conduct.

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Take the transfer of Iranian drones to Russia, for example. Tehran and Moscow argue that the UN conventional arms embargo that expired in 2020 covered such drone transfers – not the missile embargo that’s set to expire in October. The West disagrees, arguing the missile embargo language is broad enough to cover missile-carrying drones.

Who’s right won’t matter much in a few weeks. Come October, Russia and Iran will say to the West: We never believed the missile embargo covered these drones, but now that the missile embargo has expired, even the US and Europe must admit the transfer of both drones and missiles is fully permitted by the UN.

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Iran uses legalistic language to defend its conduct in other arenas, too. Tehran today stands in flagrant violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, producing near-weapons grade uranium daily. But the regime insists its conduct is fully within the terms of the agreement, citing a paragraph that authorizes a reduction in commitments as a way of responding to perceived violations of other parties (in this case, the US leaving the deal and European companies complying with US sanctions).

Russia and Iran seek to chisel away at longstanding international norms of conduct and replace them with new ones that legitimize otherwise illicit conduct. They aim to establish a new accepted reality in which the independence of smaller states takes a back seat to their imperial ambitions. In this respect, they are not only waging a war against Ukraine on the ground and in the skies, they are waging political warfare, too. Allowing the UN missile embargo to expire is a victory for Moscow and Tehran, plain and simple. Keeping it and restoring the conventional arms embargo, too, would be a big win for Ukraine.

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One wouldn’t know it from all the handwringing in Western capitals, but there’s a simple way to notch a victory for Kyiv while holding Iran accountable for enabling the mass murder of Ukrainians. Under the terms of UNSCR 2231, if just one of the original nuclear deal participants sent a letter to the Security Council alleging Iran to be violating its commitments, all sanctions and restrictions on Tehran could be restored in 30 days. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could do this on his own in a matter of minutes if President Zelensky made the ask. 

Ukrainians would be right to wonder why the snapback hasn’t already taken place if it’s so easy to achieve and Iran is so obviously in breach of its nuclear deal commitments. The answer is that, despite Iran’s partnership in terrorizing the Ukrainian people, many in the West still live under the delusion that offering incentives to the regime in Tehran will entice it to moderate.

A snapback, some Western diplomats fear, would jeopardize a failed but still-idealized appeasement framework that pays Iran not to cross the nuclear threshold. To these Europeans, preserving the dream of a flawed nuclear deal is worth sacrificing Ukraine.

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Either due to ignorance or miscalculation, Kyiv is sleep-walking into a more dangerous environment where the UN embargo will quietly expire and Russian imports from Iran will become more lethal. President Zelensky has Europe’s ear. If he demands the snapback, he just might get it.

Richard Goldberg, a former US National Security Council official, US Senate national security adviser and Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer, is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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