Uncertain Aftermath of Presentation on Iran's Regional Interventions

On Friday, the international media began to report upon the reactions of various world leaders and policy analysts to the previous day’s presentation of declassified information related to Iranian interventions into areas of regional conflict. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, spoke in Washington on Thursday in order to present policymakers with evidence that Iran has been funneling weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, among other non-state actors across the Middle East.

Standing in front of an allegedly Iranian-made ballistic missile that had been fired into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, Haley explained that the US expected to build an international coalition to confront and counteract the destabilizing Iranian influence in the region. But if the White House hoped to obtain immediate pledges of support as a result of the presentation, there are signs that it will be disappointed.

Reuters reported, for instance, that the French government had declined to give a definitive response to press inquiries regarding Haley’s presentation. This is not to say that France rejected the relevant evidence, only that there is some hesitancy about taking it at face value. French officials pointed out that the United Nations was still investigating missile launches that targeted Saudi Arabia in July and November. The results of this investigation may still present European leaders with a reason to accept the Trump administration’s accounts of the extent of ongoing Iranian belligerence among neighboring countries.

In the meantime, however, skepticism persists even among longstanding adversaries of the Islamic Republic. The New York Times provided a more general account of this skepticism, which evidently influenced the French response. That report described the White House’s claims as falling short of the criteria for definitive proof, in large part because of the apparent lack of verified information about when the Iranian weapons were transferred to other regional actors and from where they were recovered.

Of issue is the notion that Iran is violating United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed alongside the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and which bars Iran from exporting most weapons without explicit permission from the Security Council. The Trump administration maintains that Iran’s support of the Houthi has routinely disregarded its international obligations, but if the relevant weapons could be shown to have arrived in Yemen before the January 2016 passage of Resolution 2231, it could not be regarded as a sign of non-compliance.

There is little doubt that Iran has been supporting the Houthi in some fashion since before the Shiite rebels overran the capital city of Sanaa in 2015. Iranian officials deny that this support extends beyond the political and spiritual, but some weapons caches have been intercepted while apparently en route between Iran and Yemen. These seizures, together with reports of the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Arabian nation, further contribute to the White House’s conclusions about ongoing influence.

These things also help some US partners to avoid the skepticism that seems to remain predominant in Europe. Al Jazeera reported on Friday that the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs embraced the Trump administration’s declassified intelligence and said via Twitter that Thursday’s presentation, “leaves no doubt about Iran's flagrant disregard for its UN obligations, and its role in the proliferation and trafficking of weapons in the region. The UAE calls on the global community to more forcefully address the threat posed by Iran.”

The same report notes that the presentation was offered against the backdrop of an escalating “war of words” between Iran and its adversaries, particularly Saudi Arabia. As a close partner of the Saudi kingdom, the UAE has already put itself forward as one of the leading contributors to a strategy for countering Iranian influence. It was these two countries that initiated the diplomatic isolation of Qatar as punishment for its outreach to Iran. Egypt and Bahrain have also participated in this effort, although it has been criticized by many analysts for actually pushing Qatar further into Iran’s orbit.

Nonetheless, this coordination among multiple Arab nations is indicative of growing anxiety about the role that Iran is playing in the region, and this is something that the White House undeniably hopes to build upon. The Crisis Group website has prepared an analysis of potential “flashpoints” in the tensions between Iran and the US, and it identifies “heightened convergence” among several of Iran’s adversaries as one of three major contributing factors that could lead to the situation escalating even further. The second is the emerging power struggles following the defeat of ISIL, and the third is the Trump administration’s well-known contempt for the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Nikki Haley’s presentation of alleged Iranian weaponry may have been intended in part to help establish justification for US withdrawal from that agreement. Although the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran is complying with its requirements, the White House has repeatedly expressed the view that Iran’s regional interventions and ballistic missile tests violate the “spirit” of the agreement. But Haley spoke in broader terms on Thursday, referring to Iran as “fanning the flames of conflict” throughout the Middle East, and effectively urging other partners to join the US in backing Arab confrontation of Iranian influence.

That confrontation has already yielded some unexpected partnerships, as has been repeatedly highlighted in global media. The aforementioned “heightened convergence” includes the state of Israel, which has expressed willingness to share intelligence and otherwise cooperate with Saudi Arabia over the Iran issue, despite decades of tensions related to the Israel-Palestine crisis. The potential for overcoming those differences was put on display once again on Friday when Fox News reported that an extremely conservative Israeli official and opponent of the existing Palestine peace process, Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, expressed commitment to forming an “anti-Iran axis” with Sunni powers in the region.

While Katz was quoted as urging mutual visits between the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, representatives of the Iranian Foreign Ministry were seen to continue using tensions over Israel as a wedge with which to distance the Islamic Republic from the Gulf Arab nations as a whole. Since President Trump announced earlier this month that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, there have been numerous attempts by the Iranian supreme leader and other Iranian officials to portray regional adversaries as complicit in this move, despite their contributions to near-universal criticism of it.

Iran Daily reports that these efforts continued against the backdrop of an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which convened in response to Trump’s announcement. The Iranian participants in that meeting publicly distanced themselves from the meeting’s final statement, despite the fact that it referred to East Jerusalem as the inseparable capital of Palestine. Tehran reportedly took issue with language in the statement that appeared to support a two-state solution to the crisis, in contrast to the Islamic Republic’s repeated calls for the outright destruction of the Jewish state.

While this strategy is unlikely to spur reevaluation of the current policies of any nations that feel directly threatened by Iran, it may win the regime some sympathy among Muslim actors whose loyalties are split between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While this would represent only modest gains by the Islamic Republic, those gains could be nonetheless significant if the Iranians can prevent other countries from lining up against them.

Toward that end, the Foreign Ministry quickly launched a public relations campaign in response to Thursday’s presentation of US intelligence. Via Twitter, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shared an English-language “factsheet” on the conflict in Yemen, as reported by Fars News Agency. The document reiterated public statements denying the validity of the US’s conclusions and accusing the White House of pushing a prefabricated agenda. But the document provided very little in the way of direct responses to the information shared by the US. Instead it focused on blaming Saudi Arabia and its American backers for the humanitarian crisis that has grown out of the more than two-year civil war.

The effects of this distraction are presently as unclear as the effects of Haley’s presentation itself. But the New York Times observes that the Trump administration faces an “uphill battle” to convince European allies of the need to more assertively confront the Islamic Republic. The administration’s controversial tone is one reason for this, as is something else that the Iranian Foreign Ministry took pains to emphasize: the false intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction that led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

However, in the current situation, the international community has independently confirmed at least some of the relevant US intelligence, as well as supporting previous conclusions about Iran’s own pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Although Zarif claimed in Friday that United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres had declared that there was no evidence for the Iranian origin of Houthi weapons, the reality is that the UN acknowledge evidence but set the stage for France and other European nations to follow suit in denying the presence of definitive proof so far.

If evidence continues to accumulate, it may still support the American mission of building a broader coalition against Iran. In that event, there will still be some question as to what the international community can do to put additional, effective pressure on Iran, either over its regional interventions or its nuclear activities. As Fars News Agency reported on Friday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi responded to the latest US pressure by once again declaring that this Islamic Republic will not accept efforts to renegotiate the JCPOA under any circumstances.

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