Pompeo’s Flimsy Case for Extending the Arms Embargo on Iran

As part of its continued “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Trump administration is pushing to extend a UN arms embargo on the Islamic Republic that is set to expire in October. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently presented the UN Security Council with a list of grievances against Iran, a list full of unsubstantiated claims and half-truths. And like most things Washington accuses Tehran of, the U.S. and its allies in the region are guilty of similar or worse offenses.

The arms embargo on Iran will expire under terms agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal, an agreement the U.S. withdrew from in 2018 when it reimposed sanctions on Iran. “Because of the flawed nuclear deal negotiated by the previous American administration, the arms embargo on the world’s most heinous terrorist regime is scheduled to expire on October 18th, a mere four months from now,” Pompeo said to the UN Security Council on June 30th.

Pompeo went on to list attacks on U.S. forces and allies in the region that he claimed Iran was behind, either directly or indirectly. “In January, Iran launched an attack on the coalition forces in Iraq with its own advanced missiles,” Pompeo said referring to Iran’s attack on bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops, retaliation for the assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani – crucial context the secretary left out of his remarks.

Pompeo also mentioned Iran’s support for Kataib Hezbollah, a Shia militia that is frequently blamed for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. “Iran, even as we sit here today, supplies Shia militia groups like Kata’ib Hizballah – groups which have launched dozens of rocket attacks since the fall of last year against U.S. and coalition forces fighting the important continued important campaign against Daesh,” Pompeo said.

Like most accusations Pompeo makes, no evidence has been presented to corroborate the claim that Kataib Hezbollah was behind rocket attacks against U.S. forces. The series of events that led up to the assassination of Soleimani was sparked by a rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor in Kirkuk, Iraq, which was blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.

A report from The New York Times revealed that Iraqi intelligence believes the attack in Kirkuk was more likely carried out by ISIS. Abu Ali al-Basri, Iraq’s head of intelligence and counterterrorism, told the Times that the U.S. did not share any information about the Kirkuk attack. “They did not ask for my analysis of what happened in Kirkuk and neither did they share any of their information,” he said. “Usually, they would do both.”

After a rocket attack on Camp Taji in Iraq killed two American soldiers and one British soldier in March, the U.S. pinned the blame on Khataib Hezbollah and bombed targets said to be weapons facilities belonging to the Shia group. The U.S. bombing killed five members of Iraq’s security forces and one civilian. Shortly after the bombing, a new group called the League of Revolutionaries emerged and took credit for the Camp Taji attack. The League also threatened future attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, a frequent target for lone rockets. Many groups inside Iraq want U.S. troops out of their country, including Iraq’s parliament, who voted unanimously in favor of expelling the occupation forces after the killing of Soleimani.

Kataib Hezbollah is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), a group of about 40 Iraqi-state sponsored militias. The PMU was formed in 2014 to fight ISIS and played a crucial role in driving the radical militants out of major cities like Mosul and Fallujah. The drone strike that killed Soleimani on January 3rd also killed Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandes, the commander of the PMU.

In the Spring of 2019, multiple attacks on oil tankers anchored in the Gulf of Oman were blamed on Iran by Pompeo and other Trump administration officials. These claims were never corroborated, the best the U.S. could do was release photos of the damaged ships, and a grainy black and white video of a small boat alongside one of the tankers, nothing even remotely conclusive. This lack of evidence does not stop Pompeo from repeating the allegation that Iran was behind the sabotaged oil tankers as fact. “Iran unleashes ship-mining attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf of Oman, as it did in May and June of last year,” Pompeo told the Security Council.

Pompeo also accused Iran of being behind the September 2019 attack against Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that severely damaged the Kingdom’s oil production. Yemen’s Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, but Pompeo was eager to pin it on his favorite boogeyman. The day the news broke, the top diplomat immediately blamed Iran, ignoring the brutal war the Saudis have been waging against the Houthis.

Despite claims to the contrary in the wake of the attack, the Saudi oil facilities struck in September are in the range of the Houthis drones. The Houthis drone technology rapidly improved over the past few years, and the group has successfully launched many attacks deep inside Saudi territory.

The UN secretary-general released a report in June that discusses the Houthis attack on Saudi oil facilities. The report says, based on the analysis of debris recovered from sights of the September 2019, and debris recovered from other attacks that occurred in 2019, “the Secretariat assessed that the cruise missiles and/or parts thereof used in the four attacks were of Iranian origin.”

Pompeo cited this report in his remarks to the Security Council and said the report “confirmed that weapons used to attack Saudi Arabia in September 2019 were of Iranian origin.” The goalposts shifted with allegations against Iran concerning this attack. Initially, the Trump administration claimed satellite photos showed the attack came from the direction of Iran. Now it seems they have settled on the idea that Iran provided the Houthis with the weapons.

Despite the claims from Pompeo and the UN, it is not clear if Iran directly provided the weapons used in the September attack to the Houthis. A story from the U.S. Embassy in Georgia about the Iranian embargo says the UN report confirmed the weapons were of Iranian origin based on a “U.S. fact sheet.” Some analysts believe the Houthis might build their drones based on Iranian designs and blueprints, which would explain why the UN found similarities between the debris and weapons made in Iran.

The report also went over weapons seized off the coast of Yemen that were said to be of “Iranian origin,” something Pompeo mentioned at the Security Council meeting. Most recently, Pompeo claimed the U.S. seized a vessel off the coast of Yemen that was carrying weapons from Iran on June 28th. Iran denied the charge and said Washington is just looking for an excuse to extend the arms embargo. While Iran openly supports the Houthis politically, they repeatedly deny sending weapons to the Zaydi Shia group, and the U.S.-Saudi blockade on Yemen would make it difficult to do so.

It is not clear how far Tehran’s support for the Houthis goes, but what is clear is Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition, the other party to the conflict in Yemen, and the one with the most civilian blood on its hands. Since 2015 the Saudis, along with the UAE and other Gulf allies, have mercilessly bombed Yemen in an effort to oust the Houthis and reinstate President Hadi. Support for the war has been a bipartisan effort, as it was started with the blessing of the Obama administration and eagerly continued by the Trump administration.

Experts agree, if the U.S. ended its support for the Saudi-led coalition, the war would quickly come to an end. But no matter how dire the situation gets on the ground for Yemenis, Washington continues its support for the Saudi’s under the guise of combating “Iranian influence,” even though the Houthi movement is entirely homegrown. Zaydi Shia Imams ruled the areas of North Yemen that the Zaydi Shia Houthis now control for over 1,000 years until 1962 — but these details are lost on Washington.

One of the most egregious Saudi airstrikes took place in Yemen in August 2018, when a coalition plane struck a school bus with a U.S.-made bomb, killing 40 children and 11 adults. This horrific attack did not phase Mike Pompeo, who told Congress a month later that the coalition was taking “demonstratable” action to minimize civilian casualties. Pompeo’s statement ensured U.S. support for the coalition would continue.

And for all Pompeo’s talk of Iran being a “terrorist regime,” it is actually the U.S. weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that end up in the hands of al-Qaeda in Yemen. In fact, the Houthis were previously an ally of Washington in its fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A Wall Street Journal report from January 2015 (the Saudi war on the Houthis started in March 2015) lays it all out. “The U.S. has formed ties with Houthi rebels who seized control of Yemen’s capital, White House officials and rebel commanders said, in the clearest indication of a shift in the U.S. approach there as it seeks to maintain its fight against a key branch of al Qaeda,” the report reads.

Another belligerent ally of Washington, which prefers to wage war more covertly than the Saudis, has been ramping up tensions with Iran. Besides regularly bombing what is dubbed as “Iranian targets” in Syria, it appears Israel may be behind a recent string of explosions and fires in Iran. An intelligence source told The New York Times that Israel planted a bomb in the Natanz nuclear facility resulting in a blast that severely damaged the facility. Some experts believe a cyberattack caused the explosion, a method the U.S. and Israel have used together to attack the Islamic Republic in 2010 with the Stuxnet virus.

Pompeo’s appeal to the Security Council will likely fail since Russia and China can veto the motion. Pompeo has argued the U.S. can impose “snapback” sanctions on Iran under conditions of the nuclear deal, but other signatories have pointed out that the U.S. can not enforce an agreement that it has already violated.

Whatever happens with the arms embargo, Pompeo will continue to hurl accusations at Iran. But whenever America’s top diplomat gets up to speak, it would be wise to keep in mind a rather candid admission he made last year in front of an audience at Texas A&M University. “When I was a cadet, what’s the cadet motto at West Point? You will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do. I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. We had entire training courses.”

Dave DeCamp is the assistant news editor of Antiwar.com and is based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter @decampdave.