Skepticism as U.S. Accuses Iran of U.N. Arms Violation
Posted December 14, 2017 8:28 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration tried to mount a case Thursday that Iran violated an international agreement to limit its arms dealing, but U.S. officials failed to show how an array of weaponry presented as evidence proved the charges.
Nikki R. Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Iran of providing weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen who toppled the government in Sanaa, throwing the country into chaos and setting off a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
At a military base in Washington, Haley stood in front of pieces of what defense officials said were Iranian-made Qiam missiles, including one that was fired by Houthi militants at an airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have called that attack an “act of war” by Iran.
“When you look at this missile, this is terrifying, this is absolutely terrifying. Just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dulles Airport or JFK,” Haley said, naming Washington-area and New York airports, “or the airports in Paris, London or Berlin.”
Haley said that the weapons on display were declassified by the Pentagon so the Trump administration could rally other countries to crack down on Iran. Without saying exactly what the administration is seeking, she vowed that “you will see us build a coalition to really push back against Iran and what they’re doing.”
Her accusations were the latest step by the Trump administration’s effort to punish Iran for its ballistic missile program and destabilizing actions throughout the Middle East.
Asked what international agreements Iran was violating, Haley cited U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. Passed in 2015, it bars Iran from supplying, selling or transferring certain weapons outside the country unless approved by the Security Council. It also prohibits Iran from transferring weapons capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
But the evidence she showcased at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling — four weapons provided to the U.S. government by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — fell short of proving her claims.
Defense officials said they could not say exactly when the weapons — the Qiam missiles and an anti-tank missile and a drone that were both recovered in Yemen — were given to the Houthis, which means that they could have been transferred before the Security Council resolution was enacted. And in some cases, the officials said that they could not say when the weapons were used.
Defense officials were also unable to say exactly where or when the drone, a broken Qasef-1, was found. It was evidently turned over without its warhead or guidance system.
Additionally, none of the weapons displayed were capable of delivering nuclear warheads, said Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
“It’s not a nice thing for Iran to do, but that’s not the standard,” Lewis wrote in an email, referring to Iran’s transfer of weapons to the Houthi rebels.
Haley also said the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, has failed to curb Tehran’s support for terrorist groups. President Donald Trump has disavowed the deal but has declined to tear it up, as he promised to do during his campaign.
“The nuclear deal has done nothing to moderate the regime’s behavior in other areas,” Haley said. “It’s hard to find a conflict or terror group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it.”
Iran dismissed her assertions. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman at Iran’s mission to the United Nations, called them fabricated and part of a pattern of false accusations by Washington, according to Agence France-Presse, the French news agency.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted side-by-side photos of Haley at Thursday’s news conference and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, during his infamous 2003 speech at the United Nations arguing for an invasion of Iraq. It was in that speech that Powell outlined for the world what turned out to be the Bush administration’s false case asserting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“When I was based at the U.N., I saw this show and what it begat,” Zarif, who was Iran’s representative to the United Nations at the time, said on Twitter.
Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency also showed parts of a weaponized motorboat that was recovered by Emirati forces last year in the Red Sea. The boat, defense officials said, was identical to one used to attack a Saudi frigate this year. On display was the computerized guidance system for the vessel, a 33-foot-long fiberglass Shark weaponized motorboat, powered by two outboard motors and fitted with a warhead from a Styx anti-ship cruise missile.
“Nobody who is serious about this doubts that Iran has been helping the Houthis,” said Robert Malley, vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group, who was the former director of Middle East policy in the Obama White House. “Nobody doubts that that’s wrong.”
But, Malley added, “Nobody doubts that Saudi Arabia has been conducting activities that are violations of the rules of war either.”
Haley did not reference Saudi Arabia’s bombings in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has faced mounting international pressure to justify its campaign of more than two years, which has damaged its image abroad as military errors led to civilian casualties.
In October 2016, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a funeral reception in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, killing more than 100 people. The Saudis later said the attack had been based on false information, but the debacle prompted the Obama administration to block a transfer of precision weapons.
The Saudi government also claimed to have shot down one of the Qiam short-range ballistic missiles that were on display Thursday after it was fired at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on Nov. 4. But arms experts dispute that the intercept was successful, and the Qiam parts that Haley pointed to showed no signs of damage from another missile, further eroding the Saudi claims, according to Lewis.
For all the hardware on display, the administration may face an uphill battle getting European allies, let alone Russia or China, to take tougher measures against Iran. The Bush administration’s accusations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could long haunt U.S. diplomats trying to get the United Nations to sign on to tougher measures based on U.S. intelligence.
What’s more, the Trump administration has its own short history of uneasy relations with the United Nations.
“Iran’s malign activity in the region is a serious concern,” said Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state during the Obama administration who for years negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. “The issues raised by Ambassador Haley should be reviewed in the appropriate U.N. processes.”
But, she added: “The U.S. is going to be suspect because of Iraq, and it’s going to be suspect because it’s this administration. The bar is going to be high, as it should be.”