The U.S. tries to attack Iran at the U.N. — here’s why it might totally backfire

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. draws attention to Iran's role in backing Houthi rebels, but provoking Iran, say experts, might only bring greater instability.

United Nations Ambassador from U.S. Nikki Haley (CREDIT:  Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo)
United Nations Ambassador from U.S. Nikki Haley (CREDIT: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo)

In its ongoing campaign to apply pressure to Iran’s ballistic missile program — and trying to undo the nuclear deal with Iran — Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has accused Iran of supplying missiles to Houthi fighters in Yemen, where the United States is backing Yemen in a bombing campaign that supports the government against the rebels.

Reuters reported Wednesday that Haley’s accusations hinge on a missile that was fired from Yemen into neighboring Saudi Arabia in July. Haley holds Iran responsible for that incident and said it was in violation of two U.N. Security Council resolutions — 2216 and 2231.

“We encourage the United Nations and international partners to take necessary action to hold the Iranian regime accountable for these violations,” said Haley, without specifying the type of action she was calling for.

This, said Ariane Tabatabai, director of curriculum of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Services, is pretty consistent with what the administration has been doing with Iran of “generally making vague statements that express some kind of grievance with Iranian actions. But we don’t typically have an actual, concrete follow up, and it’s left to the imagination as to what kind of policy response will be formulated,” she told ThinkProgress. The Trump administration, she suspects, is generally trying to push back on Iran’s actions in the region — not just in Yemen, but also in Syria and Iraq.

The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, however, wrote a letter to the Security Council also calling for action against Iran, which the Gulf kingdom accuses of being behind another missile it intercepted north of Riyadh on Saturday. The incident sent Saudi Arabia into a frenzy, accusing Iran of “declaring war.” (Iran rejected the allegation, calling the Saudi statement a “provocation.”)

Resolution 2216 calls for Houthis to cease any act that leads to the destabilization of the government of Yemen and resolution 2213 pertains to the international obligations connected to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the P5 +1 countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and Germany). It also prohibits Iran from certain ballistic missile activity:

Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.

Although France is against dismantling or renegotiating the JCPOA, its foreign minister on Wednesday said it takes the U.S. accusation against Iran “seriously,” adding that France “attach[es] utmost importance to Iran’s compliance with all of its international obligations, including the weapons’ transfer bans provided for in UN Security Council Resolutions 2216 and 2231.” The country’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Dria, is due to meet his counterpart, Javad Zarif, in Tehran later this month, where he is expected to discuss Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The Trump administration has been critical of Iran’s ballistic missile program, over which it applied additional sanctions on Iran over the summer and continues to fault the nuclear deal for failing to contain the ballistic missile program. Still, Yemen is an odd pressure point for the United States to apply to Iran.

“The challenge in Yemen, much like Syria, is that you don’t have a side that has clean hands,” said Tabatabai. “The Saudis have essentially created the humanitarian crisis in Yemen — Iran has played a role, but it’s not been the main driver, as its been in other theaters. So the U.S., in aligning itself with the Saudis is doing itself a disservice.”

The optics of the war have been horrific.

“The Security Council resolutions, effectively, put in an arms embargo with the Houthis, so to the extent that Iran is transferring arms and related material to the Houthis in Yemen, Iran would be acting in violation of the underlying Security Council resolution,” said Tyler Cullis, an associate attorney at Ferrari & Associates P.C. who specializes in U.S. economic sanctions and export controls.

“All parties are acting in violation of the Security Council resolutions, calling on all parties, for instance, to abide by international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” Cullis told ThinkProgress.

“I think it is clear that the Saudi coalition has been acting in violation of international humanitarian law, for instance, with its targeting of civilians in Yemen,” he added. The conflict in Yemen has so far killed around 10,000 people — half of them civilians, according to U.N. figures — and Saudi Arabia is in the crosshairs of the the U.N. Human Rights Council for its bombing of schools, markets and clinics. The United States has provided Saudi Arabia and its allies with weapons, intelligence, and other support in the conflict, which started in 2015.

“With regard to Yemen, the Saudis have underestimated the Iranian influence there, and they’ve underestimated the Houthi’s own agency and abilities to continue the fight. The Iranians don’t have that much at stake in Yemen. What they’ve been doing is using a situation where the Saudis have sort of shot themselves in the foot continuously and have used it to see their rivals dig themselves into a hole,” said Tabatabai.

Because the United States is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it is unlikely to ever face sanctions for its role in Yemen.

The impact Iran’s violations in Yemen on the JCPOA is unclear — the Trump administration has access to mechanisms to impose targeted sanctions on people or entities engaged in violations (such as Executive Order 13611, which actually allows for targeted sanctions specifically dealing with the situation in Yemen), but, said Cullis, it’s unlikely that the sanctions committee would impose country-wide sanctions on Iran.

“That would take the effort of the entire Security Council and I don’t see the Security Council taking such steps,” he said.

“I think she [Haley] partly says that because it’s theater. She knows such a resolution is not going to get through. Russia and China are there and no one has an interest to take more aggressive action against Iran in the near term, especially when much of the world regards the situation in Yemen as not the fault of Iran, but the fault of U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab] Emirates,” said Cullis.

Still, he added that there is reason to think that the Trump administration might take real action on this regard, not in the United Nations but perhaps in the State or Treasury departments, which “won’t do any favors for them.”

“If we think of the goal of sanctions is to provoke a change of behavior in the target … the fact of the matter is that to the extent that Iran is transferring arms to non-state entities in Yemen, the Iranian counterparties doing so are likely to be entities that are already subject to sanctions. So, for instance, the IRGC [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard] Quds force, which is subject to three or four sanctions programs already,” said Cullis.

Adding more sanctions won’t do anything — it’ll just be an escalating cycle of sanction that will eventually lead to going after Iran’s banks.

“And if you start doing that, then you’re really going to be acting in violation of the deal because to some extent, Iran’s whole incentive to do the JCPOA was that it didn’t have access to the global financial system because its banks were all designated. So we lifted the sanctions, Iran regained access, and everybody understood that if the U.S. went back after those banks — even for non-nuclear reasons — the deal is just going to cave in. That’s the risk,” he said.

So which policy objectives would additional sanctions serve, if not helping to actually change Iran’s behavior?

“The policy objective is, ‘We don’t want the United States and Iran to get close to each other,'” Cullis said. “And if that’s the policy objective, then, yeah, you want to poke and prod Iran in any manner possible and throw sanctions at them.”

Indeed, if there is an end-game, if there is a post-nuclear deal scenario, Tabatabai said it does not look good. For one thing, even people who are against don’t seem to have a viable alternative to it, given that Iran has made it very clear that it will not renegotiate the terms of the deal. The alternatives to the deal, said Tabatabai, are “all equally bad.”

“They could go and strike Iranian nuclear facilities, which would not take care of the fundamental issue. In fact, it’s going to make Iran actually want to pursue a nuclear weapon in a way that it hasn’t in a while. It isn’t going to get rid of Iran’s nuclear capabilities either — it will, at best, slow it down,” said Tabatabai.

“The other options are cover operations, something like [malware] Stuxnet or assassinating nuclear scientists, neither of which will erase the Iranian nuclear program,” she added. She worries that tensions in the region will “torpedo out of control.”

“The dangerous thing here is that we have two fairly inexperienced leaders who are both fairly hot-headed — that’s Trump and [Saudi Crown Prince Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] MBS — who are escalating things without fully understanding the possible consequences of their actions,” said Tabatabai. “We already have four battles that are open across the region — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen — and we have states with weak central governments and terrorist groups running around. So destabilizing a pretty complex country, from a military operations perspective, like Iran, just doesn’t seem like the wisest idea.”