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Experts doubt Haley's evidence of Iran violations will spur action

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks about evidence of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and Iran’s effort to cover up continued violations of UN resolutions at a press conference at Joint Base Anacostia-Boling Dec. 14, 2017. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

The Trump administration offered evidence Thursday that it says proves Iran is providing weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, but experts are skeptical that the presentation will result in a stiffer international response to Tehran’s alleged arms proliferation.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley spoke at a military base in Washington, outlining allegations that Iranian-made weapons have been recovered from the conflict in Yemen, including a missile that was fired at an airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia earlier this year.

“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,” she said.

According to Haley, information about the weapons was declassified in an effort to muster international support for some sort of crackdown on Iran.

“You will see us build a coalition to really push back against Iran and what they’re doing,” she said, offering few details.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said U.S. officials under President Obama and President Trump have been suggesting for a while that the Houthis were obtaining weapons from Iran.

“The broad-brush significance is there is now evidence being put to the charge that select U.S. officials…have been making that Iran is arming the Houthis with missiles,” he said.

If Haley’s allegations are true, the transactions would violate both U.N. resolution 2216, an arms embargo on Yemen, and Annex B of resolution 2231, which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and set forth steps for the Security Council to implement it.

Haley delivered her presentation in front of what the Pentagon said were pieces of Iranian Qiam missiles that were fired at targets in Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels in Yemen. U.S. officials also displayed an Iranian antitank missile called a Toophan they said was found on a battlefield in Saudi Arabia, a Qasef-1 unmanned aerial vehicle also recovered in Saudi Arabia, and the guidance system from an Iranian Shark-33 boat used in an attack on a Saudi frigate.

“There are more than half a dozen pieces of evidence demonstrating that these components are directly traceable to Iran,” Department of Defense spokesperson Laura Seal told reporters.

According to James Jeffrey, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former ambassador, Iran’s alleged arms dealing is not a violation of the JCPOA itself, but unlike the nuclear agreement, the U.N. resolution endorsing it that this would violate has the force of law.

“In a sense, while not technically a violation of the agreement, it’s a more serious violation,” he said.

In his view, Haley presented a conclusive case for Iranian culpability Thursday, but it is unclear what action she wants the U.N. to take over it.

“I think the evidence is really good, but I don’t know what we’re going to do with it,” he said.

For other experts, Haley’s evidence fell short of an irrefutable case.

“The missile fragments appear to be from an Iranian-made Qiam missile and the drone fragments resemble an Iranian Qasef 1,” said Mary Kaszynski, deputy director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund. “But Pentagon officials could not say when the weapons were transferred, used, and who supplied them.”

Kaszynski warned the presentation could prove counterproductive.

“By failing to present concrete evidence, the administration is demonstrating an anti-Iran bias that undercuts its ability to coordinate an international response to Iran’s bad behavior,” she said.

Doga Eralp, a scholar-practitioner of international conflict resolution at American University, saw Haley’s speech as one more attempt by the Trump administration to undermine the nuclear agreement by linking it to Iran’s hegemonic outreach.

“The Iranian regime has always maintained that the agreement has nothing to do with the regional politics,” he said.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, had harsher words, calling Haley’s presentation “mystifying.”

“Apparently there is no proof that this stuff was actually transferred after the resolution, so it’s kind of hard to come to any particular agreement,” she said.

According to Slavin, constant attacks on the JCPOA by the Trump administration are not going to unite the international community behind action over Iran’s other dangerous and destabilizing activities. She also took issue with Haley invoking Iranian missiles striking U.S. airports.

“This is just irresponsible warmongering,” she said. “She’s trying to make people in this country afraid of Iran and build a case for military action.”

Taleblu dismissed the uncertainty about when the missiles were made or transferred, noting that any sale or transfer of arms from Iran before 2015 still should have been intercepted and arguably may have violated the resolutions in place at the time.

“Focusing on pre- or post-2015 is overly legalistic and not strategic,” he said.

Iran has both the motive and the ability to arm the Houthis, and doing so would be consistent with the regime’s past behavior.

“What we are sure about is Iran’s intention, which is to bleed the Saudis in Yemen,” Taleblu said.

Iran has seized upon any sliver of doubt and invoked the memory of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 presentation to the U.N. about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs to counter Haley’s claims.

“When I was based at the U.N., I saw this show and what it begat,” Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, tweeted.

Taleblu lamented the politicized pushback Haley has gotten. He welcomes a serious debate about the evidence she presented and Iran’s capabilities and intentions, but the Powell comparison distracts from that.

“It’s unproductive for the debate to be marred by the Colin Powell speech,” he said.

Others argue that the presentation of what turned out to be questionable evidence of violations of U.N. resolutions that led the world into an intractable war in the Middle East is entirely relevant.

“The Trump administration has taken a number of steps on Iran that are eerily similar to the lead-up to the Iraq war,” Kaszynski said, pointing to officials’ dubious claims about Iranian compliance with the JCPOA and President Trump reportedly rejecting intelligence that contradicted his desired conclusions.

“There is no question that Iran’s ballistic missile activities, support for terrorism and human rights abuses pose a threat,” she said. “But given the U.S. track record with Iraq, we need to be very careful to present solid evidence. Exaggerating the threat plays into Iran’s hands, undercuts our credibility and alienates our allies.”

Even 14 years later, Powell’s presentation casts a pall over U.S. credibility in the eyes of many.

“Obviously the earlier exhibition by the former ambassador to the U.N. does not set a strong precedent,” Eralp said.

Slavin saw echoes of Powell in Haley’s speech, but she said the former South Carolina governor lacks Powell’s stature on the international stage.

“It’s kind of a bad parody of what Colin Powell did back in 2003,” she said. “He was a widely respected international statesman, the U.S. was on the point of going to war, and his presentation was treated with great seriousness.”

Although the Trump administration has engaged in escalating rhetorical attacks on the Iranian regime and has regularly threatened to back out of the nuclear agreement, experts see little impact on Iran’s behavior so far.

“It’s made Iran, if anything, more aggressive because Iran doesn’t think [Trump] has a policy,” Jeffrey said.

“I think Iran definitely knows there’s a new sheriff in town,” Taleblu said, but he added the Iranians are now trying to use that change in power to sow doubt between the U.S. and its allies.

As long as other major powers remain committed to the nuclear deal, Iran likely knows U.S. options are limited.

“What the Trump administration is trying to do is discredit the relevance of the JCPOA,” Eralp said.

Alternatives to the status quo that can garner support both among the other signatories to the agreement and the U.S. Congress may prove hard to come by.

“This is not a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Iran,” he said. “It’s between six global powers and Iran, so even if the U.S. decides to step out of it, it would only harm U.S. credibility in international relations.”

According to Slavin, some actions the president has taken, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, have strengthened Iran. Meanwhile, the administration’s open hostility may be convincing them there is no benefit in negotiating with Trump.

“It’s just a textbook case in how not to get somebody to do what you want them to,” she said. “It’s inept, it’s really inept.”

The future of the nuclear deal remains somewhat in limbo. Congress opted not to act this week as a 60-day deadline to pass a resolution reimposing sanctions expired. Trump now faces another ultimatum to certify or decertify Iran’s compliance with the agreement in January.

“Because he decertified it in October, I would say it’s likely he will decertify it again,” Taleblu said. That would send the issue back to Congress.

Trump also must decide in January whether to continue waiving sanctions that were lifted as part of the agreement.

“If he doesn’t sign off on these waivers, then the U.S. is in material breach of the agreement and the Iranians could walk away,” Slavin said. “We’d have the worst of all possible worlds because it’s not clear what the international community will do.”

“You might end up with two nuclear crises on your hands,” she added, referring to Iran and North Korea.

Jeffrey fears tensions in the region are rising, and even if Haley can decisively demonstrate that Iran has violated U.N. resolutions in Yemen, he has not yet seen a clear strategy from the Trump administration to address its transgressions.

“We don’t have an Iran policy besides the president attacking the JCPOA,” he said, “and we need one.”

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