By Reza Marashi
Nikki Haley is not good at foreign policy. With few discernible achievements to speak of after one year as America’s envoy to the UN, her most noteworthy moments have been two incoherent diatribes on Iran. The first–an airing of grievances passed off as justification for killing the Iran nuclear deal–came and went with little fanfare. Yesterday, she doubled down with a speech trying to make the case that Iran is, among other things, supplying Houthis in Yemen with ballistic missiles and “fanning the flames of conflict in the region.” There are a variety of problems with Haley’s assertions. Three in particular stand out.
First, Haley cited a UN report in her claim regarding Iranian missile transfers to the Houthis. Of course, the UN has reached no such conclusion. Instead, a panel of experts concluded that fired missile fragments show components from an Iranian company, but they have “no evidence as to the identity of the broker or supplier.” Asked about Haley’s claim that Iran is the culprit, Sweden’s ambassador to the UN said, “The info I have is less clear.” Analysts from the U.S. Department of Defense speaking to reporters at Haley’s speech openly acknowledged that they do not know the missiles’ origin. Perhaps most surreal is the very same UN report cited by Haley also says the missile included a component that was manufactured by an American company. Did she disingenuously omit that inconvenient bit from her remarks, or fail to read the entire UN report? The world may never know.
If Iran is arming the Houthis, it is a terrible policy that Iranian officials should reverse. All countries should stop arming the various factions in Yemen. Tehran is no exception. But neither is Washington. It was therefore appalling to see that Haley’s speech reference Yemen and not include a single word about America’s ongoing military, intelligence, and logistical support for the Saudi-led humanitarian catastrophe taking place. If she wanted to focus on facts regarding Iran and Yemen, she should have explained to reporters that, in addition to bolstering Iran’s influence in country where it was previously negligible, the Saudi-led debacle has also empowered al-Qaeda–the same al-Qaeda that attacked the United States on 9/11 with 15 Saudi nationals, and continues to plot attacks on America today.
There is also a stunning lack of foreign policy sophistication in Haley’s prevailing assumption regarding Iran and missiles. Not only do we recklessly arm despots in the world’s most volatile region with missile of their own, we also provide the Iranian government with a pretext to further develop its missile program – and cite American and European military sales to an increasingly aggressive Saudi Arabia and UAE as justification for doing so. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a slogan, not a strategy. And if it remains the status quo, so too will the growth of Iran’s missile program.
The most inexplicable part of Haley’s charade is her insistence on talking about Iran rather than talking to Iran. The only thing stopping her from sitting down one on one with her Iranian counterpart at the UN to respectfully discuss these matters is her own shortsighted ideological rigidity. Frankly, the track record is clear. Talking about Iran produced more missiles under the Bush administration. Talking to Iran eventually produced compromises on missiles under the Obama administration. Haley should spend less time using the UN ambassadorship to boost her domestic political ambitions, and more time actually conducting diplomacy on behalf of the United States.
If Haley is truly concerned about Iran’s missile program and regional activities, she can take three immediate steps to demonstrate her seriousness: First, immediately halt all American military, intelligence, and logistical support for the Saudi-led humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. If the war ends, concerns about Iran in Yemen recede. Second, freeze all missile sales to Middle Eastern countries. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE aren’t armed to the teeth with missiles they don’t know how to use, Iran’s threat perception and missile development reduces accordingly. Third, immediately offer bilateral and multilateral dialogue with the Iranian government on all issues of contention–with no preconditions. The JCPOA is proof that sustained diplomacy with Iran can produce favorable outcomes for American interests.
Haley’s dearth of foreign policy experience is no excuse for her shambolic performance yesterday. Rather than displaying the dignity and poise of America’s face to the United Nations, she had her Colin Powell 2003 moment, demonstrating that too many of our leaders have still not learned the lessons of the Iraq war disaster. At best, this is willful ignorance on Haley’s part. At worst (and more likely), she cherry-picked intelligence in a fashion eerily reminiscent of the 2002-2003 push for invading Iraq. It’s not too late for Haley to salvage her tenure at the UN, but it will require listening more to the professional staff of career government officials she inherited rather than the motley crew of Republican operatives she brought with her to New York.
Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council. He came to NIAC after serving in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets. Follow Reza on Twitter: @rezamarashi