On Monday of this week, the White House hosted representatives of all fellow permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, after which the several diplomats were given opportunities to directly inspect missile components that had been recovered from the Arabian Peninsula after allegedly being supplied to Yemen’s Houthi rebels by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The previous month, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley presented those components in a press conference at a Washington military base, declaring that such items as a ballistic missile fired at Saudi Arabia had clear Iranian fingerprints on their manufacture. On Thursday, CBS News reported that representatives of the United Kingdom and France had both expressed confidence in the American findings, which were backed up in January by an internal UN report.
That report was somewhat less definitive that Haley’s pronouncements, acknowledging the apparent Iranian origin of the weapons in question but maintaining that it was not immediately clear how and when these components had reached Yemen. The UN nonetheless concluded that Iran was, at a minimum, guilty of failing to prevent its weapons from falling into Houthi hands.
But Russia is now exploiting this uncertainty to cast doubt upon the American account of the relationship between Tehran and the Shiite rebel group that took control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2015. Iran denies that that relationship extends beyond political support, but several weapons caches have been seized since the start of the civil war, apparently en route from Iran to Yemen in attempts to break an internationally-enforced blockade. Additionally, Tehran has been accused of dispatching members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to Yemen to act as advisors or even as direct contributors to the fighting, thus leading to concerns among Iran’s enemies that the Houthi may grow to constitute Yemen’s answer to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
Despite this evidence, and despite the direct evidence presented to UN Security Council members in Washington this week, Russia continues to side with Iran in a sign of the persistent alliance between the two countries following their cooperation in defending Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. CBS noted that Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia reiterated Tehran’s “vehement denial” that it is supplying anything to Yemen, as well as declaring that there was “nothing definite” to support the American-led push for more sanctions or other multinational actions in response to Iran’s ballistic missiles and arms trafficking activities.
Each of these activities is arguably a violation of a separate UN Security Council resolution. The body has barred the world as a whole from supplying weapons to Yemen, and the 2016 resolution governing the nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid work on weapons like ballistic missiles, that are “designed to be capable” of carrying nuclear warheads.
The apparent Russian opposition to full enforcement of this provision means that the world community will no doubt face great difficulty in implementing mechanisms for putting additional pressure on Iran, as by strengthening the language of that same Security Council resolution. As a permanent member, Russia enjoys veto power in the council, although this does not entirely prevent the US from exerting effective pressure over the current situation with Iran.
As Newsy pointed out on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump has threatened to cancel the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if the diplomats’ visit to Washington failed to move the world toward building consensus over the need to address the Iranian missile program as well as the perceived flaws in the JCPOA, including sunset provisions that allow Iran to begin resuming halted nuclear activities after about 10 years.
The same report noted that the White House had voiced high hopes for the effects of that visit – hopes that were seemingly justified by the British and French responses, even as they were undercut by remarks from the likes of Nebenzia. For instance, the UK’s acting ambassador to the UN, John Allen, deferred to the analysis of UN experts in saying that it was difficult to imagine how the physical evidence of Iranian weapons manufacture could have been tampered with.
Such remarks also come after weeks of evident progress toward European buy-in for American efforts to put more pressure on Iran. As evidence of this, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said earlier in January, “We will have the opportunity of underlining our firmness on Iran's compliance with United Nations Resolution 2231, which limits access to ballistic capacity and which Iran does not respect,” according to the CBS News report.
Additionally, another report from Newsy quoted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as saying that European partners appeared ready to take action not just over the Security Council resolution and the ballistic missile issue but also over the Trump administration’s demands for improvement of the JCPOA itself. Specifically, Tillerson said that France, the UK, and Germany had all committed to participating with the US in working groups aimed at addressing those demands in a way that preserves the essence of the nuclear deal, which Europe still overwhelmingly supports.
But that support may still be a sticking point for President Trump, who has derided the JCPOA as the “worst deal ever negotiated.” Its critics tend to see it as a cash giveaway to Iran in the form of sanctions relief and prospective trade deals, in exchange for only limited consensus from Iran regarding its nuclear program. Accordingly, the US government has shown wariness about providing license deals or otherwise demonstrating that European investors in the Islamic Republic would be free from the threat of American sanctions.
Under those conditions, European efforts to address the Trump administration’s major concerns are arguably counterbalanced by efforts to continue pursuing expanded trade with Iran over the administration’s objections. And on Thursday, Reuters reported that the latter type of efforts were ongoing in France despite French diplomats expression of confidence in the ballistic missile reports and willingness to discuss JCPOA enhancements with the US.
Specifically, Reuters noted that France was set to “start offering euro-denominated credits to Iranian buyers of its goods,” thereby setting up a mechanism to facilitate trade between the two countries while avoiding contact with American markets, so as to potentially circumvent US sanctions. These sorts of measures, together with the public statements coming out of Russia, cast doubt upon the ability of the permanent members of the UN Security Council to come to an agreement about how to manage Iran policy in the months to come.
In mid-January, Trump announced that he would renew the sanctions waivers that began under the JCPOA. But the US president also insisted that that was the last occasion on which he would do so, giving European governments and the US Congress 120 days to arrive at a consensus about how to best address the administration’s criticisms of Iranian misbehavior.