The Trump administration’s war in Yemen is on the rocks in Congress. So what can you do when the Hill doesn’t want to back your Saudi allies’ increasingly bloody war there? Drag out some Iranian missiles from Yemen and hope the sight of them is enough to spook senators into supporting continued American involvement in the war.
In a briefing on Thursday, the State Department’s special Iran envoy Brian Hook hailed the display of seized Iranian weapons from Yemen as “new evidence of Iran’s ongoing missile proliferation” and a sign that the “Iranian threat is growing and we are accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to act.”
The display came off as an attempt to mute growing concerns about the American-supported Saudi war in Yemen by focusing attention on the involvement of a much-hated adversary in the conflict. Hook showed off a Sayyad 2C surface-to-air missile allegedly seized by Saudi captured in Yemen earlier this year. In a briefing attended by The Daily Beast on Wednesday, defense officials pointed to the Persian language markings and Iranian defense company logos showing that the weapons had come from Iran in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Hook defended U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen and characterized a recent Senate resolution calling for a cutoff of military aide to the Saudis as “abandoning Yemen.” Hook claimed it “would do immense damage to U.S. national security interests” and suggested that the U.S. instead continue support for Saudi efforts to “defend themselves against Houthi attacks.”
But the State Department’s efforts seem unlikely to turn the tide of public opinion against the war. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was up on Capitol Hill to drum up support for continued U.S. backing of the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The effort appears to have backfired as at least 14 Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting to move ahead with a resolution that calls on the U.S. to withdraw its support for the Saudi war effort.
The war in Yemen has taken a grim toll on civilians in particular, making even Republicans queasy about continuing to enable it. Fighting in port cities as well as blockades launched by the Saudi coalition against Iranian weapons smuggling have turned malnutrition into an epidemic. At least 85,000 children have died from malnutrition and an outbreak of cholera has killed an additional 3,000 civilians. The Saudi air war—supported by U.S. munitions supplies and refueling—has also claimed a high civilian toll. In one notorious incident, a coalition warplane struck a school bus and killed dozens of children with an American-made bomb.
Other weapons shown as part of the briefing included the wreckage of a Qiam short range ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels into Saudi Arabia in December 2017. Houthi forces claim that the weapons are indigenous but components found in the missile’s guidance system and fuselage are marked with Iranian defense company logos and share the Qiam’s idiosyncratic absence of stabilizing fins on its tail end. U.N. investigators have also attributed the weapons as Iranian after reviewing the wreckage of five separate missiles launched by Houthi rebels into Saudi Arabia.
The focus of the Iranian materiel display has also expanded since to include a focus on alleged Iranian involvement in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Defense Department officials showed off the the wreckage of a complete Iranian Shahed-123 drone which officials said crashed in Afghanistan in 2016 after surveilling U.S. military bases. The drone allegedly took off from Zabol Airfield in Zabol, Iran and overflew Camp Bastion, Kandahar Airfield, Qalat Army Barracks, and Forward Operating Base Laghman before it crashed and was recovered by American forces. Iranian TV showed off the drone in a late September 2016 segment featuring Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force Chief Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh shortly before the drone crashed in Afghanistan.
Defense officials also claimed that Iran had transferred 107mm Fadjr rockets to the Taliban between October 2017 and April 2018. Officials said Iran provided the rockets directly to the Taliban, but did not provide evidence for the transfer other than their appearance in seized Taliban weapons caches.