The Trump administration's truculent warning last week that it was putting Iran "on notice" over its recent missile test and a missile strike on a Saudi warship off the coast of Yemen appears calculated to convince the American public that the current administration is going to be tougher on Iran than the Obama administration was.
However, despite the tough talk from National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and other senior officials, the new administration appears to be focused primarily on aligning US policy more closely with that of Saudi Arabia -- especially in its war in Yemen and its broader conflict with Iran. The Saudis have been leading a coalition of Sunni Gulf regimes in bombing most of the Yemeni territory controlled by Houthi rebels since March 2015, with US support.
An unidentified senior administration official speaking at a February 1 press briefing, a transcript of which Truthout has obtained, indicated that, apart from economic sanctions, the administration was considering options "related to support for those that are challenging and opposing Iranian malign activity in the region" -- meaning the Saudis and Israel.
During the briefing, the senior officials signaled clearly that the Trump administration will unconditionally support the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen. In response to the question of whether the administration was "reassessing" US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, the unnamed senior official answered with one word: "No."
The Trump administration's lack of public reservation about the indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing campaign, as well as its lack of interest in exerting pressure on the Saudis to end the war by accepting a compromise with the Houthis and the forces of former Yemeni president Saleh, significantly increases the likelihood that the Saudi bombing will continue indefinitely. That means that the food shortage that is killing thousands of Yemeni children will probably become far worse in the coming months.
The Saudi attacks' devastating impact on nutrition in Yemen has long since eclipsed direct results of the bombing as a cause of death. No estimates of deaths from starvation have been given by relief organizations but UNICEF reported in December that 462,000 Yemeni children already suffer "severe acute malnutrition," a life-threatening condition in which their bodies shrink to little more than skeletons. Another 1.7 million children currently suffering from "moderate acute malnutrition" are at risk of crossing the threshold to severe malnutrition.
The main cause of a humanitarian crisis worse than in Syria is the Saudi coalition blockade by naval ships and aerial bombing of the main commercial port in the area controlled by the Houthis, which has sharply limited commercial and humanitarian shipments of food, fuel and drugs to the populations targeted by the bombing.
The Obama administration had approved the Saudi-led bombing campaign before it started and had provided aerial refueling to Saudi coalition planes carrying out the bombing. The Obama administration had also replenished the coalition's supply of bombs and supplied intelligence to its planners, long after it had evidence of war crimes against the population in Houthi-controlled areas. It tried to persuade the Saudis to negotiate seriously with the Houthis but refused to force the issue of ending the war. Now, the Trump administration appears to be encouraging the Saudis to impose a military solution, regardless of the mass starvation it will continue to cause.
The Trump administration's threatening posture toward Iran is also related primarily to a decision to tighten the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. Senior officials indicated in the February 1 briefing that the Trump administration will continue to confront Iran not only on its missile testing but also on its plans for a new stage of missile production. In the press briefing on February 1, a senior Trump administration official referred to both the missile test and the Houthi attack on the Saudi ship as "inherently destabilizing and a threat to our friends and our allies."
The official also cited an announcement by Iran's defense minister last September that Iran would soon begin production of a variant of the Shahab 3 missile with an advanced guidance stem that allows it to target specific military and infrastructure sites in Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel.
These remarks indicate that the Trump administration intends to mount a public campaign of pressure on Iran over its production and testing of new, more accurate missiles, beginning with a new round of sanctions against companies that were linked to the missile program. That policy expands the existing list of individuals and companies subject to US financial and travel sanctions for such alleged links.
Citing the UN Security Council resolution for the purpose of justifying the new sanctions was politically convenient but legally baseless. Resolution 2231, which was negotiated with Iran in July 2015 in conjunction with the nuclear agreement, actually has no legally binding effect on Iran.
A previous UN resolution touching on Iranian missiles tests, Resolution 1929, had used two words -- "decides" and the peremptory "shall" -- that have long been considered necessary for a resolution to be binding. The resolution said the Security Council "decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons." But Resolution 2231 says only, "Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons" for as long as eight years. That language left room for Iran to refuse.
The Trump administration also chose to ignore not only the nonbinding character of the 2015 language but also the difference between "capable" and "designed to be capable" in the two resolutions. In the press briefing on February 1, a senior official cited the payload weight and range of the Shahab-3 -- variables that can't be used to determine whether a missile is designed to carry a nuclear weapon -- as the justification for the new sanctions against Iran.
In fact, Iran's medium-range missiles have been designed for conventional deterrence or war fighting, as the leading Israeli expert on Iran's missile program, Uzi Rubin, has been saying for many years. Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC, has observed that Iran would have to redesign at least the internal components of the missile to adapt it to carrying nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is not facing Iran's ballistic missile force empty-handed. It had already purchased dozens of Chinese missiles with a maximum range well beyond the Shahab-3 in 1987, a decade before Iran had begun to test its first medium-range missile. And as early as 2007, Saudi Arabia went on to acquire an unknown number of advanced D-21 Chinese missiles with maneuverable warheads and precision-guidance systems.
The Israelis had hoped the United States would help stop the Iranian missile program in the late 1990s by choking off technological help from the Russians. But that effort to use power to halt the progress of Iranian missile development was an utter failure. Now it is too late for the United States to do anything about Iranian missile development and production except express disapproval.
The Trump administration's accusation that Iran is responsible for the Houthi attack on a Saudi warship on January 31 is primarily a show of toughness for domestic consumption and a show of support for the Saudi war of destruction in Yemen. Administration officials are treating a military action by the Houthis against the Saudis as "destabilizing" -- as though the Houthis were either a terrorist organization or the aggressors, rather than the victims of external aggression.
That propaganda line reflects the fact that the United States refused to accept the 2014 overthrow by the Houthis of the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which had been put in power by the US and Saudi Arabia in 2012. The Obama administration supported the Saudi effort to delegitimize the Houthis by calling them proxies of Iran. It has repeatedly accused Iran of sending shiploads of arms to the Houthi forces, supporting a claim by the Hadi government about an arms shipment in 2013 that the evidence shows originated in Yemen and was headed or Somalia.
In fact, the Houthis did not depend on Iranian arms to gain control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. Former president Saleh, who was supporting their bid for power, ordered the Yemeni military to turn over much of the arms it had acquired from the United States to the Houthi forces on their way from Saada governorate to Sanaa. And when the Iranians advised the Houthis not to occupy the capital militarily in 2014, the Houthis rejected their advice and listened instead to former president Saleh -- their old enemy who was now their main ally, as US intelligence officials were aware.
The Houthis did apparently get guided missiles from Iran after the Saudis began the bombing campaign to allow the Houthis to have some means of retaliation.
The Trump national security team consists of some of the most extreme anti-Iran figures from the military (National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Secretary of Defense James Mattis) and from Congress (former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, who is now serving as CIA director). These officials share visceral, antagonistic feelings about the Iranian regime and its role in the region. But for the time being at least, the practical effect of those views is not to move the administration toward a military confrontation. The effect is mainly to double down on the US support of Saudi Arabia's war and to inflict ever-worsening agony on the population of Yemen.