U.N. Questions Evidence Against Iran Over Missiles

Report says it is not clear that Tehran orchestrated an attack on Saudi oil facilities.


The United States and Saudi Arabia’s claim that Iran has been using or supplying ballistic missiles to be deployed against its regional rivals in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions has been gradually gaining strength.

In late September, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany rallied behind the United States, saying Iran bore responsibility for a Sept. 14 attack on two oil facilities owned by Aramco, the Saudi state oil company. Early last year, a U.N. panel of experts concluded that Iran had violated a U.N. arms embargo in Yemen by failing to prevent the transfer of Iranian-made missile parts to Yemen, where they were used in an attack on Nov. 4, 2017. 

But that effort to broaden international support for the campaign to censure Iran hit a bump earlier this month, when U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued a report saying there was no evidence to categorically support claims by the United States and Saudi Arabia that Iran carried out the attack on the Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais or a series of earlier attacks on Saudi targets, including a May attack on an oil facility in the town of Afif and a pair of attacks on Abha International Airport in the summer.

“At this time, [the U.N. secretariat] is unable to independently corroborate that the cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles used in those attacks were of Iranian origin and were transferred in a manner inconsistent with” the Iran nuclear deal, according to the report, which we are highlighting as our Document of the Week.

The U.N. sent a team of weapons experts to Saudi Arabia in September and November to analyze missile and drone debris. During the trip, the Saudis told the U.N. that 18 unmanned vehicles were used in the attack on Abqaiq and four cruise missiles were used in the attack on the Khurais oil facility. Three additional cruise missiles fell short of their target.

Diplomats cautioned that the report represents the U.N.’s preliminary findings and that it continues to investigate the source of the drones and cruise missiles, which have a range of 900 and 700 kilometers (about 550 and 450 miles) respectively. And the U.N. report casts doubt on the veracity of Houthi claims of responsibility for the attacks, noting that Saudi accounts of the number of weapons used were more reliable than statements by the Houthis.

For instance, the U.N. chief said that the Houthis are not believed to have been in possession of the type of delta-wing drones used in the attacks on Afif and Abqaiq. He also said that the drones were equipped with a Model V9 vertical gyroscope, a key component in the drones’ guidance systems. An Iranian drone recovered in Afghanistan in 2016 was also equipped with a Model V9 vertical gyroscope. The U.N. has not determined, however, who manufactured it. The U.N. Secretariat, according to Guterres, is still collecting and analyzing additional information on these drones and cruise missile, “and I intend to report to the Security Council on further findings in due course.”  

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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