Arms businesses eying Iran are both a hindrance and, potentially, a help for any nuclear deal

Iran’s Zarif: smile practice at the 11th hour.
Iran’s Zarif: smile practice at the 11th hour.
Image: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger
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A nuclear deal would lift a debilitating weight on Iran’s economy and—if Tehran so chose—improve relations with the rest of the world. It would have a dramatic impact in the US, too, allowing Americans—if they so chose—to begin the process of moving on from a 36-year-old confrontation with Tehran.

But even actors with only a glancing connection to the talks stand to gain. For starters, big, global oil companies—which may get contracts to drill for oil in Iran—are strong advocates for any deal. And then there are the arms dealers.

State-owned arms businesses from Russia and China have been waiting in the wings for any opportunity to give Iran’s military a much-needed makeover. These interests are are said to be a factor in holding up a final deal, but if they prove to be a potent lobbying force at home, they could wind up helping the deal get to the finish line once any agreement is circulated for approval in their capitals.

Right now, Tehran seems to be impeding a deal in part by insisting that the UN lift an embargo on the sale of conventional arms to and from Iran, in addition to a ban on the sale of ballistic missile technology to the country.

Iran feels confident making this demand because Russia and China–both of them members of the so-called P5+1—vigorously support this position. As a matter of principle, both Moscow and Beijing oppose sanctions, mostly because they either are or could be the subject of such punishments themselves. But the other reason they’re standing behind Tehran is that either or both stand to earn some $14 billion in air force, army, and naval materiel sales to Iran should the negotiators reach a deal that lifts the bans. (What neither Iran, Russia, nor China seems to grasp, however, is that a deal that does what they want is likely to be a nonstarter in Washington.)

US military contractors, too, are part of the regional equation. They have racked up some $6 billion in sales to Israel and the Middle East’s Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Big European military companies have been shopping for substantial business as well.

Many analysts say these relationships are meant to ease Israel’s and the Sunni countries’ anxieties as Iran possibly gets access to some $100 billion in frozen oil-export proceeds. But Ben Moores, an analyst with the military research firm IHS Janes, tells Quartz that that’s not quite right—most of the supply agreements to date far precede the talks with Iran. Still, the sales could be accelerated as a way to win over Gulf and Israeli support for any deal. And, as with Russia and China, the companies involved could prove influential in getting any deal approved in the US and European capitals.