AOAV: all our reportsUK arms exports to countries of concern

UK arms export to Iran (2012-2022)

Country overview

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a population of 86 million and is located on the Eastern shores of the Persian Gulf. Since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979, Iran has been a Shia-ruled Islamic Republic. President Hassan Rouhani who won the presidential election in 2013, continued the country’s record for repressive rule until 2021 – especially against political activists and sexual minorities – despite campaigning for limited political and social reforms. Following the Presidential elections in June 2021, conservative judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi has been elected Iran’s eighth president with 61.95% of the vote on a voter turnout of 48.8%– the lowest turnout for a presidential election since the 1979 revolution. 

The UN and the EU implemented mandatory arms embargoes on Iran in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and this was followed in June 2010 by a UN embargo which lifted most economic sanctions on Iran, in exchange for strict limits on its nuclear programme and on the export of most major conventional weapons. From the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Adoption Day, on 18 October 2015, the provisions related to restrictions on the export from and transfer to Iran of conventional weapons or related goods and services allowed supplies of major arms, related components, and services with the specific approval from the Security Council. On 31st December 2020, the Iran Human Rights (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 came fully into force with the aim to ensure that financial, trade and immigration sanctions weigh on Iran to continue to operate effectively.

On September 16th, 2022 protest against the government erupted in response to the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. Amini had been arrested by the Guidance Patrol for wearing her Hijab ‘improperly’. The protests have been met with violence and internet blackouts by the government.

As of 2022, Iran is yet to ratify and sign the Arms Trade Treaty.

How many licences for the sale of arms to Iran did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2022?

The UK did not sell any military equipment to Iran during the past decade due to the UN and EU-imposed embargoes. 

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

The UK did not approve any export licence for military goods to Iran during the reported period from 2012 to 2021. However, as the graphs below illustrates, whilst there were no UK export licences for military goods, £1.1 billion worth of military and dual-use goods was approved from the UK to Iran in the last decade.

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain selling to Iran?

Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use) when you consider both military and dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software, and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, but also for military goals), the top ten export items requiring licences are below.

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Iran between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
Components for civil aircraft59
Civil aero-engines16
Components for civil aero-engines14
General laboratory equipment12
Ferrous Alloys6
Top three export licenses approved by ratingValue of export licenses in GBP
PL9009 ‒ Aircraft and related technology£1.0bn
End Use ‒ May be intended for WMD purposes£36
5D002 ‒ Telecommunications and information security£4.4m

The UK government has respected the various arms embargoes on Iran with many of its export licences falling under categories of civilian crafts and chemicals, why only dual-use items have been exported to Iran. 

The Iran (Sanctions) (Nuclear) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, in relation to military goods, arms and other material, stated that “The export of restricted goods to, or for use in, Iran is prohibited.” Yet, the most frequent weaponry sold to Iran from the UK was that of components for civil aircraft, which as some investigators alleged, might be intended to enhance the performance of Iranian aircraft. 

Additionally, seals have been among one of the most common export licences approved, an export item that along with gaskets, might be used as nuclear reactor vessel and/or testing equipment components as explained in a Council of the European Union’s Regulation (EC) No 423/2007 of 19 April 2007 concerning restrictive measures against Iran. This has led many to suggest that Iran’s nuclear programme may be receiving significant support from UK sources.

It is worth considering that a report in 2019 by the Congressional Research Service found that Iran began exceeding many of the JCPOA limits on its nuclear program, and in doing so, shortening the time ,experts estimate it would take Iran to acquire enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. In response, Iran has cited its right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it has signed, to “research nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

Iran is ruled by an authoritarian regime, notorious for its human rights violations ranging from executions of sexual minorities, extreme censorship, and violent crackdowns on political activists and human rights defenders. Nearly all media in Iran is government-controlled and online social media platforms are extremely restricted.

During the period analysed, all attempts toward political reforms or improving human rights were quickly suppressed by force. Citizens exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly were consistently met with charges of “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “assembly and collusion to disrupt national security.” Numerous human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and bloggers were also arrested.

One of the biggest concerns related to the sale of arms to Iran is the subsequent export of arms from Iran to non-state armed groups in the Middle East, such as Houthi forces in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, viewed by European partners in the region as a direct threat. Records show that some Iranian weapons, including light arms and ammunition have been sold or donated to Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and allegedly to Yemen’s Houthi rebels who were supplied (most likely by Iran) with Qasef-1 suicide drones and light arms.

The European Union plans to maintain its own arms embargo on Iran till at least 2023, and this position was supported by the ex-US President Donald Trump who reimposed all U.S. sanctions and economic penalties on Iran after having ended its participation in the JCPOA.

Despite UK arms sales not violating the arms embargoes, there are still reasons to be concerned. The Iranian regime’s application of dual-use objects is never straightforward and, given the regime’s deeply concerning human rights record, there are no guarantees in place that dual-use items will not be used in support of human rights abuses.

What has the British government said about these concerns?

Iran appears on the Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) list of human rights-priority countries. The British government has explicitly addressed Iran’s repeated failures to meet international human rights standards.

The UK had a clear position throughout the time frame considered, and in 2015 through the signature of the nuclear deal as one of the members of the P5+1 group of world powers it expressed the will to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. In the deal, the UK along with China, France, Russia, the US, and Germany gave Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on its nuclear programme. Although most financial and economic sanctions against Iran were lifted following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s verification that Iran had completed all necessary steps to reach Implementation Day, some sanctions have remained in place considering human rights, the proliferation of restricted goods, technology and Iran’s support for terrorism.

Though the re-opening of the British Embassy in Tehran, in 2015, marked an important step forward in diplomatic relations between the two countries, Iran’s human rights record continued to cause great concern” as the FCO stated in its 2017 report.

In a parliamentary debate in 2016 , it was reported that “President Rouhani pledged to improve the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Iran when he was elected in 2013 and he also promised reforms on discrimination against women and members of ethnic minorities, and greater space for freedom of expression and opinion, but there has been little evidence of positive change.”

 In 2017, the FCO said that it would have continued “to engage with the international partners to hold Iran to account for its human rights record.”

The UK government’s action were summarised in 2016 Human Rights and Democracy report explaining that “the  UK has consistently pressed Iran to improve its human rights record, both through bilateral engagement and with our international partners, including through the UN and the EU. In 2016, we strongly supported the renewal of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur. In December, we welcomed the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Resolution on Human Rights in Iran. The UK lobbied hard for global support and the Resolution passed with an increased number of positive votes.”

The UK directly witnessed several events of arbitrary detentions of its citizens which caused international concern. One of the most known is the imprisonment of the jailed British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who in September 2016 was sentenced to five years in jail by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Iran claimed Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “plotting to topple the government in Tehran,

but no official charges were ever made public.” Her release was granted in March 2022 and has been linked to the payment by the UK of a multi-million-pound debt to Iran, which relates to an arms deal that occurred in the mid-1970s. In brief, this deal witnessed the UK sell more than 1,500 Chieftain battle tanks and 250 repair vehicles to its close ally the Shah of Iran. Iran paid £600m for the tanks in advance, but the UK in February 1979 refused to deliver the remaining weaponry when the shah was deposed and replaced by a new revolutionary and theocratic regime. Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) rejected a plea from the Foreign Office to hand over £400m owed by the UK government to Iran arguing that firstly, it was not required to pay in the light of the sanctions imposed and secondly, Sir Michael Fallon and Gavin Williamson argued that the money might have ended up in the hands of Iranian forces.

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Iranian government has committed since 2012?  

Iran has been widely chriticised for human rights abuses, some of the most prominent included; 

Restriction on freedom of expression through censorship and surveillance, discrimination against women and religious minorities, use of torture and execution, denail of due process and fair trials.

According to the World Report 2014 regarding Iran, in 2012, “Iran carried out more than 544 executions, second in number only to China, according to Amnesty International, which reported that at least 63 executions were carried out in public.” In 2015, Iran’s human rights situation worsened as it continued “to execute more individuals per capita than any country in the world” found UN special rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed. According to his report, at least 753 people, including 25 women and 13 minors, were executed in Iran in 2015, marking a 12-year-high. The huge number of executions in Iran continued to cause concern in the following year as well. According to Amnesty International, the authorities executed 567 people in 2016. Amnesty drew attention to the complete lack of independence and impartiality where judicial processes and sentences are imposed either for vaguely worded or overly broad offences, or acts that should not be criminalised at all.

The Gatestone Institute of International Policy Council found that “Trials in Iran were deeply flawed, detainees were often denied access to lawyers in the investigative stage, and there were inadequate procedures for appeal, pardon and commutation.

According to Human Rights Watch detainees were often subjected to torture.

Hassan Rouhani won the re-election as president in 2017. Broad national security offences were often used against journalists to silence them in Iran, and the country remains one of the most repressive to journalists in the world; 165th out of 180, according to the NGO Reporters without Borders. The same year, Human Rights Watch documented how in this discriminatory environment, and in the face of government policies that do not afford adequate protection against discrimination in the public and private sectors, women are marginalized in the economy, constituting for only 16% of the workforce. In one year, there were more than 40,000 marriage registrations where the bride was aged between 10 and 14 years, Human Rights Watch reported.

In 2020, following the execution of Ruhollah Zam, an activist and founder of the AmadNews Telegram channel, UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet commented that “his death sentence and execution by hanging are emblematic of a pattern of forced confessions extracted under torture and broadcast on state media being used as a basis to convict people.” In response to Iran’s execution of the dissident journalist, several European countries have pulled out of a planned Europe-Iran Business Forum that was scheduled to begin in December 2020.  Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) commented “Europe’s refusal to participate in a business forum with Iran sends a clear and welcome message: the world will not turn a blind eye to the profound human rights violations taking place in the Islamic Republic”. The following year, 23 international human rights organisations including the Center for Human Rights in Iran signed a  joint statement asking Iranian judicial authorities to release the activist Mehdi Mahmoudian and defence attorneys Arash Keykhosravi and Mostafa Nili. These peaceful human rights defenders were arbitrarily arrested because they were preparing a document against the country’s National Task Force against Coronavirus, including the Minister of Health and other officials responsible for the mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi warned in early 2022 that “The Iranian government has a documented pattern of using lethal force to crush protests while cutting off internet access to prevent the world from seeing the state’s violence.” These warnings were confirmed again, after the Mahsa Amini protests were met with violent crackdowns by the government, including internet blackouts, nationwide restrictions on social media, tear gas and gun fire. 

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Iran.  Human rights abuses continue.