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Red Sea Rising
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley unveils previously classified information intending to prove Iran violated UNSCR 2231 by providing the Houthi rebels in Yemen with arms, December 14, 2017 (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Red Sea Rising

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

Saudi frigate Al Madinah was patrolling the Red Sea in January of 2017 when an unmanned explosive boat called the Shark-33 slammed into it reportedly killing five sailors. Video of the attack was recovered from a Houthi rebel ship. The massive explosion elicited euphoric cheers. Their cheers were not for the destruction of the House of Saud. Rather, they were: “Death to America!” “Death to Israel!”

Later that same year Houthi rebels fired a large SCUD missile called a Qiam at unsuspecting travelers at the international airport in Riyadh. Mercifully, the missile didn’t hit its intended target. That same month the rebels fired another Qiam at Yamama palace. Again, it did not result in casualties.

Around the same timeframe, a “kamikaze” Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) called the Qasef-1, designed to dive towards its targets and detonate its warhead upon impact had a Saudi-led missile defense system (likely an American-made Patriot battery) in its sights.

Similarly, a Toophan anti-tank missile targeted the Saudi-led coalition. Only two countries produce that particular type of missile, one being the United States.

All four of these weapon systems have a few things in common: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recovered components of them which are now on display in the United States at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the weapon systems were made in Iran by Iranian state-owned companies, and Iran illicitly transferred them to Houthi rebels.

Iran has been prohibited from exporting arms and related material since 2007 under UNSCR 1747 and has been violating it since. It is worth noting, however, that according to Pentagon spokesman, Laura Seal, “the Qiam was not in the Houthi arsenal prior to the adoption of UNSCR 2216 in April 2015,” a few months before the infamous Iran deal was finalized.

In December 2017 U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley made headlines by giving a speech in front of the weapons display. The Pentagon, with support from the National Security Council (NSC), has been giving tours of the display to representatives from dozens of countries and national security professionals in and out of government.

I joined one of the tours this week. I am not one of those who needed to see and touch hard evidence to be convinced of Iran’s malign activities in Yemen or anywhere else. But even for someone like me, there’s something especially compelling, chilling even, to see the Iranian hallmarks on the deadly weapons, to view the onboard videos of IRGC engineers working on the weapon systems that would then be used to target civilians, to see and touch the markings where skilled welders put the missiles together after they were disassembled for transport. One Pentagon official told our group that disassembling the Qiam in this way risks sabotaging the weapon system to the point of failure, which communicates something about how determined the Iranians are to transport the weapons nonetheless.

Our Pentagon tour guides outlined the purposes of the display and tours: One, to offer evidence of Iran’s activities to skeptics, to organize an international response to raise the cost of Iran’s illicit activities, and to show the Saudis that the United States is fully committed to pushing back on Iran and leading an international effort to decrease Iran’s power and influence. On the last point, one hopes this will convince the Saudis to continue to show restraint, a tall order when their capital city is under attack— yes, by Houthi rebels, but more to the point— by Iran. The display is merely part of an overall strategy to counter Iran, especially as it has become more aggressive and audacious after the Iran deal, and to stave off a much larger regional war that seems to be on the brink.

In the meantime, one government staffer told me that the Pentagon would continue to fill the hangar with whatever Iranian weapon systems our allies could collect, whether at sea, in Yemen, Saudi, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Imagine the hangar brimming with the grim evidence of the reach of Iran’s brutality, destruction, and unlawfulness. It is hard to see how such a visual doesn’t help the Trump administration’s efforts to rally international support that was shamefully squandered during the last administration. It will not hurt.