U.S. threatens Iran over illegal rocket exports
President Trump’s point man on curbing Iranian aggression offered fresh evidence Thursday that Tehran is violating a United Nations ban on weapons exports by sending rockets and other military equipment to proxies around the Middle East, and warned that the U.S. is prepared to use force to curtail such activity.
Standing before a dramatic backdrop of Iranian weaponry that the U.S. says was captured from Tehran-backed militants in Yemen, Bahrain and Afghanistan, Brian Hook, State Department special representative for Iran, said the Islamic republic has been shaping events across the region for nearly four decades through “illegal weapons transfers, proxies and terror a deadly trifecta.”
Among the equipment on display were anti-tank weapons, unmanned aircraft, small arms and other advanced weaponry captured across the region. The U.S. accuses Iran of arming proxies that include Yemen’s Houthi rebels, militants in Bahrain and Afghanistan’s Taliban.
Mr. Hook said the Trump administration’s policy remains open to negotiations with Iran but stressed that the U.S. “will not hesitate to use military force when our interests are threatened.”
The weaponry was displayed at Bolling Air Force Base just a day after the Senate, including more than a dozen Republicans, delivered a rebuke to the administration with a vote signaling growing opposition to U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign against Yemen’s Houthis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued before Wednesday’s vote that Iran’s meddling in the Yemen war was a prime reason the U.S. had to remain engaged in the fight.
Mr. Hook said the materiel on display solidifies the Trump administration’s case that Iran is running an increasingly dangerous weapons proliferation program in the Middle East.
“The tools of Tehran’s foreign policy are here before you today,” he told reporters in front of what he claimed was an Iranian Sayyad 2C surface-to-air missile captured by Saudi Arabian forces from Houthi forces in Yemen.
“This is not foreign policy; this is state-sponsored revolutionary terrorism,” Mr. Hook said. “This missile was designed and manufactured in Iran, and the writing in Farsi on its side translates as ‘the hunter missile.’ The conspicuous Farsi markings is Iran’s way of saying they don’t mind being caught violating U.N. resolutions.”
The display was the latest in the administration’s push to draw international attention to what they say are Iranian violations of U.N. resolutions and to justify Mr. Trump’s decision to renounce the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran and reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran and nations that do business with it.
U.S. officials say the weapons clearly link Tehran to militant groups operating in both nations.
“The new weapons we are disclosing today illustrate the scale of Iran’s destructive role across the region,” said Mr. Hook. “The same kind of [weapons] here today could tomorrow land in a public market in Kabul or an international airport.”
The presentation was built from a similar display that Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, laid out nearly a year ago. Thursday’s display underscored how the scope and lethality of weapons supplied by Iran have only increased since then.
The international community has barred Iran from exporting weapons through a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions that began in 2006 and was extended in 2015. Washington has imposed separate, unilateral economic and political sanctions against Tehran after the May withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.
The State Department report circulated Thursday said Iran’s conventional weapons programs have continued despite the sanctions. “The Iranian regime has failed for years to adhere to restrictions placed on its missile program by the international community,” it said. “Iran’s ongoing missile tests demonstrate its desire to increase the accuracy and effectiveness of its capabilities.”
The stakes in Yemen
Mr. Trump has made the “rolling back” of Iranian influence across the Middle East a central tenet of his foreign policy since taking office last year. But some critics have begun to question the policy’s impact, pointing to ongoing Iranian proxy activity in several nations across the region, including Iraq.
Hours after Mr. Hook’s presentation, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino brushed aside a reporter’s question about whether the administration could point to an example of a successful case of rolling back Iranian influence.
Mr. Palladino said the administration has “gotten out of the failed [Iranian nuclear deal], something that is going to allow us to finally confront the totality of Iran’s malign influence and to preserve American interests ... both in the region and globally.”
The war in Yemen and Iran’s role in escalating the conflict are emerging as crucial points in the debate. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller on Thursday accused Iran of “throwing gasoline on the fire” in Yemen and other conflicts across the Middle East.
Other U.S. officials say the administration’s goal is to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen and emphasize White House concern over the spiraling humanitarian crisis in the country.
The State Department on Thursday announced a $131 million emergency food assistance package for Yemen. Total U.S. humanitarian assistance to Yemen in fiscal year 2018 was nearly $700 million.
But the department also argued that “no amount of humanitarian or development assistance” will end the conflict. “All parties must cease hostilities and support negotiations to find a peaceful solution and put an end to the suffering of millions,” the statement said. “It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction.”
Loosening Tehran’s influence in Yemen is a key point in the Trump administration’s argument for maintaining military support for the Saudi-led campaign there.
But opponents of the U.S. support for Riyadh say the Saudis are causing massive civilian suffering and using heavy-handed bombing tactics to defeat the Houthis, reportedly including the use of internationally banned weapons. The suspected role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing last month of dissident U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has also turned popular opinion against the kingdom and helped fuel the Senate rebuke of the administration in Wednesday’s vote.
Some White House critics claimed Thursday’s display of Iranian weapons exports was a calculated political ploy by the administration to shore up faltering support for U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, something Mr. Hook rejected.
“This is simply putting out in broad daylight Iran’s missiles and small arms and rockets and UAVs and drones,” he said.
“It’s very important for nations to see with their own eyes that this is a grave and escalating threat,” Mr. Hook said. “We are one missile attack awa