The following article was originally published by the author on Medium.
Barely two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, his administration is already laying the groundwork for what could become a dangerous military confrontation with Iran.
On Monday, Houthi fighters struck a Saudi naval vessel off the coast of Yemen (the Houthis claim it was a missile; the Saudis claim it was a suicide boat). Two sailors were killed. A video of the incident was taken.
On Tuesday, a Fox News article claimed, citing unnamed U.S. defense officials, that the real target of the attack was an American ship. Their evidence was a Houthi slogan, used commonly, which includes in part, “death to America”, that was shouted after the attack. This is either very amateur analysis or a deliberate effort to frame the attack as an Iranian attack against the United States.
The Houthis are a Shiite rebel group who have fought against the Yemeni government for over a decade. In 2014, the Houthis allied with the ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, their former enemy, and in early 2015, seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Following this event, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention backed by other Gulf Arab states and the U.S., initiating the present civil war in Yemen. The war has killed thousands of civilians, internally displaced millions and threatens millions with famine in the region’s poorest country.
The Houthis, while receiving some support from Iran, are an independent group that has operated for years and pursue their own domestic political agenda. Their ties to Iran are frequently exaggerated in U.S. media, and it is common for them to be labeled as “Iranian proxies”, especially when it serves the narrative of those who wish to label Iran as a sponsor of terrorism and accuse it of destabilizing the region.
The reality is that Iran has limited influence on the actions of the Houthis. In 2014, Iran discouraged them from taking over Sana’a, but they did it anyway.
On Wednesday, in response to a ballistic missile test by Iran on Sunday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn announced from the White House briefing room that the administration was “officially putting Iran on notice”, making the administration policy on Iran clear.
Finally, on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer falsely accused Iran of attacking “our vessel” off of Yemen. Although he accepted a correction from Major Garret from CBS News that it was actually a Saudi vessel, the whole incident was brushed off as a small error, even though the difference between attacking a Saudi and an American vessel is huge, and his claim that Iran was responsible was left unchecked.
One dangerous falsehood, that Houthis targeted an American vessel, quickly turned into the charge that Iran targeted an American vessel, just within a day. This would be a clear act of war.
This kind of dangerous rhetoric and outright lies from the new administration needlessly harm already tedious relations with Iran, which thanks to the nuclear deal in 2015, improved slightly and likely allowed for the quick release of U.S. sailors that were captured in Iranian waters a little over a year ago.
It is worth noting that Iran’s missile test did not violate the terms of the nuclear deal, as some Iran hawks have claimed. Nor does it violate any UN resolution, as all legally binding resolutions against Iranian missile tests were voided by the JCPOA accord.
Iran has complied with the deal, and there is no threat that Iran will attempt to develop nuclear weapons under the strict terms of the agreement. The purpose of all this seems, at the very least, to be to push Iran into abandoning its end of the deal so that the U.S. can claim once again how untrustworthy Iran is and scrap the deal.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced new sanctions against individuals and entities connected to Iran’s missile program.
It is easy to see how these provocations could lead to a military confrontation. Such a confrontation would serve no American interest, and could destabilize one of the few stable countries in that region. All of this is a gift to Iranian hardliners, who seek to gain the most from any confrontation with the U.S.
The Trump administration is yet again proving it is reckless in its dealings with other nations, and it is only a matter of time before they spark a new conflict.