Report

Facing Sharp Rebuke on Saudi Ties, U.S. Points to Growing Iran Threat

The administration unveiled new evidence that Iran is supplying weapons to militants across the Middle East.

The US military displays what it says is a Iranian Sayyad-2 surface-to-air missile, at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington on Nov. 29. (Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty Images)
The US military displays what it says is a Iranian Sayyad-2 surface-to-air missile, at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington on Nov. 29. (Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty Images)

Facing mounting pressure to end all U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war on Iran-backed forces in Yemen, the U.S. government on Thursday attempted a deflection, touting new evidence to argue that Iran is shipping weapons to militants in Yemen and Afghanistan.

In a press conference on Thursday, Brian Hook, the special representative for Iran and senior policy advisor to the secretary of state, unveiled what he said are pieces of Iranian weaponry discovered in Yemen and Afghanistan. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley first revealed evidence of Iran’s weapons proliferation in December 2017. But the inventory has expanded, Hook said, reflecting an increase in Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and other militant groups.

“The Iranian threat is growing, and we are accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to act,” Hook said. “This is a function of Iran’s relentless commitment to put more weapons into the hands of even more of its proxies regardless of the suffering.”

If Iran is indeed shipping weapons across the Middle East, it would be a violation of U.N. resolutions.

The presentation, the second since December, is both part of the administration’s broader effort to rally support for its campaign to isolate Tehran and a way to push back against congressional criticism of its continued support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It appeared designed to showcase the key role Saudi Arabia can play in helping the United States fend off Iran’s malign influence and maintain stability in the Middle East.

The timing, however, is suspect. The presentation comes just a day after a large bipartisan majority in the Senate voted to advance a resolution demanding an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict. The 63-37 vote margin reflected broad concerns about the U.S. role in the war and growing anger among lawmakers over the Trump administration’s continued support for the Saudi government following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Hook used the new evidence to urge the international community to ramp up pressure on Iran and to be careful about de-escalating the conflict in Yemen. He pointed to Lebanon as an example of how Iran has cemented its influence through arms sales and warned against the “Lebanization” of Yemen.

As the United States and U.N. work toward achieving an end to the violence, the allies must be careful not to “affirm Iran’s role as a political actor in Yemen,” Hook stressed. Iran could use that newfound influence to further threaten the stability of the region, he warned. U.S. officials and advocacy groups have long worried that Iran-backed Houthis could pose a threat to international shipping through the vital maritime choke point of Bab el-Mandeb, between Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

“Just imagine what Yemen would look like in the future with a entrenched and enduring Iranian presence,” Hook said. “We already know how this movie ends, and we cannot watch a new version of Lebanese Hezbollah slowly emerge in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis with weaponry.

During the presentation, Hook unveiled a Sayyad-2 surface-to-air missile, one of two systems interdicted by the Saudi government in Yemen in early 2018. Iran intended to deliver the missiles to the Houthis, Hook said. He pointed to Farsi markings on the side of the missile as evidence that it was designed and manufactured in Iran.

Hook also unveiled anti-tank guided missiles, including a new type of missile that was seized in Yemen.

Also on display during the presentation were Fajr rockets recovered by the Afghan army in Helmand, Afghanistan, near Kandahar airfield. Iran has been supplying weapons to the Taliban since 2007, Hook said.

In addition, Hook displayed debris from a new Iranian unmanned aerial system, the Shaheed-123, recovered by coalition forces in Afghanistan after it crashed and separately interdicted in Yemen early this year. Finally, he pointed to several new small arms such as sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and assorted assault rifles and hand grenades, provided to the United States by Bahrain.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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