Houthis: US trying to distract from Jerusalem furor with Iran missile claim

Tehran-backed rebel group questions timing of announcement by Nikki Haley that rockets fired at Saudi Arabia bear proof they were made in Iran

Yemeni Shiite Houthi rebels and supporters take part in a demonstration in the southwestern city of Taez against the Saudi-led military intervention in the country, on March 29, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/STR)
Yemeni Shiite Houthi rebels and supporters take part in a demonstration in the southwestern city of Taez against the Saudi-led military intervention in the country, on March 29, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/STR)

A spokesperson for the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group in Yemen rejected US claims Thursday that missiles had been provided to the group from Tehran, accusing Washington of attempting to distract from its decision on recognizing Jerusalem.

“America did not find any evidence in all the missiles fired from Yemen until now. The story is clear. They want to give Arabs a story to divert their attention from Jerusalem. Instead [of] being angry at Israel, they wave the Iranian bogey,” Abdel-Malek al-Ejri wrote on Twitter, according to Reuters.

Earlier in the day, the US’s ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley presented what she called “undeniable” evidence that a ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen at Saudi Arabia last month was Iranian-made, a charge Tehran immediately denied.

Haley accused Tehran of a “blatant violation” of UN Security Council obligations designed to rein in its missile activity, further stepping up the rhetoric towards Iran which Washington accuses of going against the spirit of a historic nuclear accord.

Haley’s claim came as the Muslim and Arab world continued to seethe over US President Donald Trump’s recognition last week of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Protests, some of them violent, were held outside US embassies in several countries in the days after the decision.

Lebanese security forces fire tear gas to disperse protestors as a fire burns in a dumpster during a demonstration outside the US embassy in Awkar, on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut, December 10, 2017. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP)

The Houthis, a Shiite rebel group, are already fiercely anti-Israel and anti-American, regularly burning flags of both countries and calling for their destruction.

Standing in a warehouse at a Washington military base in front of recovered pieces of two missiles, Haley said Iranian fingerprints were all over the weapons, one of which she said was fired at Riyadh’s airport on November 4.

“It was made in Iran then sent to Houthi militants in Yemen,” Haley said. “From there it was fired at a civilian airport with the potential to kill hundreds of innocent civilians in Saudi Arabia.”

“This is absolutely terrifying,” said Haley, one of the Trump administration’s most vocal critics of Iran. “Just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dulles Airport or JFK, or the airports in Paris, London or Berlin. That’s what we’re talking about here.”

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley points to previously classified missile segments she says prove Iran violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by providing the Houthi rebels in Yemen with arms, during a press conference at Joint Base Anacostia in Washington, DC, on December 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

The newly declassified evidence from Haley marked the most aggressive US effort to date to substantiate its claim that Iran funnels weapons to the Houthis, an allegation widely accepted by most countries but that Tehran steadfastly denies. It comes as the Trump administration seeks to rally the world to punish Iran for its ballistic missile program and other worrying activities, despite backing away from the 2015 nuclear deal.

World powers that joined the US in brokering that deal have voiced frustration at Trump’s moves to “decertify” Iran’s compliance with the deal as a prelude to renegotiating it. The Obama-era deal rolled back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions in sanctions relief, but did not address Iran’s missile-building or support for terror groups in the Middle East.

“Everyone has focused on the nuclear deal, and Iran has hidden behind the nuclear deal,” Haley said. Gesturing to the missiles, she said, “These are the things they’re doing while we’re all looking the other way.”

Iran’s government stood behind its assertion that Iran hasn’t sent any missiles to Yemen, where the Houthi rebels have taken over much of the country.

Iran’s envoy to UN, Gholamali Khoshroo, said it was “fake and fabricated” evidence that illustrates America’s “irresponsible, destructive and provocative role” in the region, according to a statement carried by Iran’s official IRNA news agency.

A Yemeni tribesman from the Popular Resistance Committees, supporting forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, fires a machine gun in the area of Sirwa, east of the capital Sanaa on December 14, 2015. AFP/ABDULLAH AL-QADRY)

The US acknowledged it couldn’t account for the full chain of custody, such as how the missiles got into Yemen — an admission that suggests there are still holes in the US intelligence.

“We do not know when they were transported exactly,” said Defense Department spokeswoman Laura Seal.

Even so, Haley’s presentation was roundly cheered by Iran’s enemies, including Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. With US support, a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthis on behalf of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The civil war has turned Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, into a proxy battleground for Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran.

“Today’s revelations proved yet again that Iran’s dangerous presence in the Middle East is only growing despite their attempts to deceive the world,” Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said.

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