Why are the United States Department of Defense and the US ambassador to the United Nations acting as spokespeople for Saudi Arabia’s atrocious war against the religious Yemeni-Houthi minority?
And why is Ambassador Nikki Haley throwing herself in front of the international community with laughable evidence to claim, among other statements: “The Iranian regime cannot be allowed to engage in its lawless behavior any longer. International peace and security depends on us working together against the Iranian regime’s hostile actions.”
Haley held a news conference on Dec. 14 at a Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling hangar in Washington, where she also promised that pieces of allegedly Iranian-supplied weaponry to the Houthi insurgents would help the US to build an international coalition “to push back against Iran and what they are doing.” But her conjectures for what is “lawless behavior by Iran” have already been set straight many times by time-tested investigative methods of UN sanctions experts who are readily available to Haley and the US government.
What Iran is doing is not violating UN resolutions or UN sanctions, contrary to Haley’s statements. The board of governors of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency has just confirmed in its November report for the 10th time since Resolution 2231 was adopted in 2015 by the Security Council that Iran is following the letter and spirit of its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal.
UN sanctions experts on Yemen have also reported many times that there is no evidence of violations of the arms embargo imposed on Yemen’s insurgencies by official Iranian actors. While UN experts have found weaponry and ordnance from various countries on numerous occasions, including from Iran, they have no indications that the government or its proxies act as suppliers.
By following the facts and reading the experts’ reports, Haley should have known better than to draw conclusions about possible lawless behavior. But once again, US diplomats and related experts are attempting to weave a web of speculative intelligence to create the appearance of Iran’s culpability.
US Department of Defense experts allege in a press release that there is “concrete proof that the Iranian regime is exporting arms to sow instability and promote violence throughout the region.” They are referring to fragments of an Iranian-origin drone, an antitank rocket and two Qiam missiles. The latter two hit a Saudi oil facility on July 24 and the King Khalid International Airport, near Riyadh, the capital, on Nov. 5. Defense Department experts do not provide evidence on how the weapons landed in the hands of the Houthis.
In fact, leaving aside the question as to who had supplied the missiles, who had fired them seems to be disputed even between the US and Saudi officials.
“We see this as an act of war,” the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said in an interview on CNN the day after the Riyadh airport was hit. “Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps.”
Although the Saudi government seems to allege that Iran shot the rockets, the US appears to believe Ansar Allah — the Houthi’s insurgent group — who claimed responsibility. In international law, the difference between these two versions is huge. If there were evidence that Iranian military forces had pulled the trigger on the Qiam missile on Nov. 5, it would be an act of war. But nobody has come even near to presenting evidence for such a claim.
If, however, the Qiam missiles bear the signature of the Houthi insurgents, their counterstrikes into Saudi territory sits well within international law of war. The missiles follow decade-long trajectories of cross-border violence, mostly rooted in Sunni-Saudi intolerance for the Shiite Houthis based in the northeastern border region adjacent to Saudi Arabia. The war was unleashed when Saudi proxies in Yemen could no longer control the Shiite minority, prompting a Saudi-led coalition to bomb indiscriminately Houthi-held territories, including major cities they had conquered and controlled temporarily.
Saudi actions also appear to open Yemen to additional insurgencies by ISIS and Al Qaeda. All parties to the conflict are accused of being serial violators of UN Security Council sanctions and international humanitarian law. But Saudi Arabia’s medieval religious war is undermining impartial UN mediators and special representatives, who have been striving to find a peaceful resolution to the Yemen conflict. The stronger the evidence of Saudi’s humanitarian transgressions — as it continues a sea and land blockade in Yemen — the shriller it deflects its role by claiming Yemen’s insurgents are proxies of Iran.
Siding with Saudi Arabia, Haley also said at her news conference in Washington that “the weapons might as well have had ‘made in Iran’ stickers all over it,” a non sequitur possibly meant to create an impression of Iran’s culpability, where there is none.
UN sanctions and arms-embargo experts settled this evidentiary issue a long time ago. Based on standards that have been honed over 18 years and in many conflict zones, the use of arms in such settings does not automatically impugn the manufacturer of arms or the manufacturer’s country of origin. UN investigators are required to provide detailed trade documentation to reflect transactions, starting with the usually innocent manufacturer and the role of intermediaries, such as financiers and shippers, to finally reveal the machinations of the “last mile” into the sanctions region to the guilty end-user.
If the clear distinctions between the responsibilities of international arms manufacturers and those violating arms embargoes were actually respected, most arms-producing countries, including the US, would face blame for their “lawless behavior.”
The “made in Iran” label on weapons or ammunition is as meaningless as the national origin of the countless other military items constantly found in Yemen, as the majority of such material are pre-war and pre-embargo military stockpiles that the Houthis looted from the Yemen military and security depots.
Unfortunately, Yemen never reported its stockpiles of missiles or other military items to the UN Register of Conventional Arms — leaving wide space for speculation about pre-existing Iranian missiles stocks. Evidence tying the Iranian government to embargoed arms supplies into Houthi territory — or the lack thereof — is actually well researched and documented.
UN experts regularly report about maritime vessels and other transports that are stopped, searched and seized by the international community, including by the US. The verdict is clear: neither large-scale shipments nor so-called anti-trafficking incidents can be connected to official Iranian supplies to Houthis in search and seizures of the five dhows, or fishing vessels, that have been documented since September 2015.
What was found on these ships is publicly tabulated: 5478 AK-47 assault rifles, 55 PKM (Pulemyot Kalashnikova Modernizirovanny) machine guns, 64 sniper rifles, 21 heavy machine guns of 12.7 millimeter caliber, 300 portable rocket launchers, 20 mortars (60 millimeter), 56 Toophan antitank missiles and 28 guided antitank weapons.
But not a single Qiam missile.
Enrico Carisch is the co-author of the just-released book “The Evolution of UN Sanctions: From a Tool of Warfare to a Tool of Peace, Security and Human Rights.” He is also a co-founder and partner of Compliance and Capacity Skills International (CCSI), a New York-based group specializing in all aspects of sanctions regimes (http://comcapint.com).
Among other organizations, Carisch has worked for the UN Security Council as a financial and natural-resources monitor and investigator on sanctions violations by individuals and entities in Africa and elsewhere. Previously, he was an investigative journalist for print and TV for 25 years.