The US has presented evidence that officials said proved that Iran had supplied short-range ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen which were then fired at Saudi Arabia.
The US envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, made the presentation at Bolling Air Force base in Washington, which is the headquarters to the Defence Intelligence Agency.
She said that the evidence would be used to convince Congress and UN member states of the threat to peace represented by Iranian missile proliferation in the Middle East. Haley said the supply of missiles to the Houthis was a violation of a UN resolution, but stressed that the US was not seeking to use the evidence as a reason to walk out of the 2015 multilateral agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.
“The nuclear deal is not something we are focused on now,” she told journalists.
“Everything doesn’t have to be tied to the nuclear deal, but it does have to be tied to the security council resolution. Everybody has tiptoed around Iran in fear of them getting out of the nuclear deal and they are allowing missiles like this to be fired over to innocent civilians and hurt and that is what has to stop.”
“So we will continue to build the international community’s support to say this is not about the nuclear deal. This is about all other actions and the president will work with Congress on how we go forward in dealing with Iran in this way.”
Standing in front of segments of two missiles, which US officials say were fired recently by Houthi forces at Saudi Arabia, Haley said: “As you know we do not often declassify this time of military equipment recovered from these attacks but today we are taking an extraordinary step of presenting it here in an opening setting.”
“In this warehouse is concrete evidence of illegal Iranian weapons proliferation gathered by direct military attacks on our partners in the regime,” she added.
“The fight against Iranian aggression is the world’s fight. The US is acting today in the spirit of transparency and international cooperation that is necessary to defeat this threat.”
The Iranian spokesman at the UN, Alireza Miryousefi, said the evidence was fake.
He said: “We categorically reject it as unfounded and, at the same time, irresponsible, provocative and destructive. This purported evidence, put on public display today, is as much fabricated as the one presented on some other occasions earlier.”
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, submitted a report to the security council saying that there was evidence that Iran was supplying ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels in defiance of UN resolution 2231, and that the UN was investigating.
However, in the report, Guterrres stressed that the nuclear deal remained the “best way” to ensure the exlusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.
He said Donald Trump’s decision in October not to certify the nuclear agreement under US law created “considerable uncertainty” about its future. But he added: “I am reassured that the United States has expressed its commitment to stay in [the deal].”
Saudi Arabia welcomed the UN report and Haley’s comments, calling on the international community to “hold the Iranian regime accountable for its hostile actions,” according to state news agency SPA.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the UN report that asserted that the hostile Iranian intervention and its support for the terrorist Houthi militia with advanced and dangerous missile capabilities threatens the security and stability of the kingdom and the region,” SPA said.
The US says that the two missiles on display were recovered from Saudi Arabia. One was aimed at Riyadh airport and the other fell in the west of the country. Haley said that they were Qiam missiles that had been directly supplied by Iran. She pointed to the absence of fins and an arrangement of nine valves on the missiles, which she said were characteristic of the Qiam.
US officials also said that the missile body was made of aluminum alloy and not steel, a fact that weapons experts said pointed to the missiles being Qiams rather than the more rudimentary Scud C of the sort North Korea is known to have delivered to Yemen in 2002.
“When they made the Qiam, the Iranians replaced the steel with aluminum, so the material of construction is interesting,” Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said. “If it is aluminum, then it’s almost certainly the Qiam. That suggests the entire missile was transferred rather than just some parts.”
Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said that North Korea had also used aluminum in its version of Scud C, but is very unlikely to have supplied that updated version to the Houthis.
“I’m reasonably persuaded that these are Iranian,” Lewis said. “But this is still a short-range ballistic missile, under 1,000 km. It’s comparable to the kind of things we give to our proxies.”
The Saudi-led coalition leading the fight against the Houthis in Yemen, which has been supplied with weaponry by the US, the UK and other allies, has been accused of the indiscriminate killing of civilians through its aerial bombing campaign and by its blockade of rebel-controlled areas of the country.
The UK foreign office accepts the intelligence in the UN-provided report does imply Iran supplied missiles to Houthis, confirming this in the Commons last week. But British officials are deeply concerned that the US push to impose wider sanctions on Iran for breaches of UN resolutions relating to Yemen could endanger the 2015 nuclear deal, potentially by goading Tehran to walk out of the agreement.