Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, on Thursday stood in front of an Iranian-made missile fired at the Riyadh airport by Houthi militants in Yemen, trying to rally the international community behind the Trump administration's sharp stance toward Iran. She was there to present what the U.S. describes as recovered pieces of a missile fired by Houthi militants from that Nov. 4 attack, pointing out the missile bears "Iranian missile fingerprints."
This, she said violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231, a 2015 measure that prohibits Iran from providing weapons outside Iran without Security Council approval. Haley characterized it as evidence that was unmistakable, clear and devastating. It is rare for the U.S. to roll out this kind of intelligence but Haley worked with the White House, the Department of Defense and U.S. intelligence agencies on the revelation, which took place at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling -- home of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Trump has advocated taking a harder line against Iran, and he often voices his disdain for the Iran nuclear deal. Last month he decertified the deal to Congress and is trying to coax members to make its terms harsher. Haley said her presentation had nothing to do with the Iran deal.
"The nuclear deal has done nothing to moderate the regime's conduct in other areas," Haley argued. "Aid from Iran's Revolutionary Guard to dangerous militias and terror groups is increasing. Its ballistic missiles and advanced weapons are turning up in war zones across the region. It's hard to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran's fingerprints all over it."
But European leaders have been resistant. They're deeply frustrated by what seems to them to be the Trump administration's attempt to bully them into altering or ditching the Iran nuclear deal, which they see as effective. Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted a comparison of Haley's speech to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN of U.S. evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in 2003. The intelligence turned out to be wrong. Zarif tweeted the two events side by side.
Haley showed that the guidance system of the missile that the U.S. says was made in Iran and shipped to Yemen, bears the initials of the Iranian firm which manufactured it and the main body has nine fueling valves, a trademark of Iranian-made missiles. Parts of a suicide boat identical to the one used in an attack on a Saudi frigate included electronics with the stamp of an Iranian company and a camera with a memory card that had photos taken at the factory -- with an IRGC hat in the background. In the weapons the U.S. inspectors did come some U.S. components though they would not say exactly which components they were. Not every detail was provided, however. The weapons were given to the U.S. to review by Saudi Arabia and the UAE but the date of the transfer of the weapons to the Houthis from Iran could not be provided, and there was also no confirmation of when the weapons were used.
The New York Times reported that the evidence she pointed to "fell short."
The U.S. is inviting European partners to come and look at the evidence for themselves. If they support the U.S. crackdown on Iran in other arenas, Mr. Trump could be more likely to stay in the Iran deal, Haley's team indicates.
"Part of why there was not a roll-out of more formal policy is because the U.S. is working with other nations to get them on the same page," explained a senior aide to Haley. "We have made clear that we expect cooperation on the non-nuclear side, just as they are seeking our cooperation on the nuclear side."
Critics caution that the administration shouldn't be making promises on behalf of a president who is known to be unpredictable.
"No one in the administration can look European partners in the eye and say, 'If you do this, we will stay in the deal,'" explained Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Their problem is that the stance U.S. negotiators are left with essentially says, "We can't guarantee you anything because he [Trump] is a total wildcard."
Yet Haley and her team are pressing forward, confident this approach will convince stakeholders to come along, especially if they don't want Trump to pull the string on the unraveling of the nuclear deal. Haley shares Mr. Trump's views on Iran policy. She supported his decision to decertify the deal to Congress and was also involved in the administration's plans to display the Iranian weapons this week. This week the UN, too, put out its own report on Iran, which does not mirror the U.S. findings. However, it did find Iran may be defying the UN calls for it to halt ballistic missile development. Haley was eager to take advantage of this moment to escalate to focus on the hard evidence the U.S. has studied.
"The UN reporting timeline created a ready-made vehicle to highlight what Iran has been doing, and Amb. Haley saw it as a good opportunity to advance the administration's policy," said a senior Haley aide. The aide said that McMaster and Mattis were advocates of this approach, while Tillerson was supportive but less involved in the planning and execution.
Haley promised that the presentation is just the beginning of showcasing "uncomfortable" evidence of Iran's destabilizing activities. "That display will continue to grow. That is just a fraction of all the material we have," her aide said.
There are many options on the table for the U.S. Iran experts say one policy could involve not directly pursuing Iran, but targeting its regional limbs.
Mark Dubowitz, an Iranian expert and the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CBS News, "The practical reality is that the Trump administration is signaling that they will treat the Houthis as an extension of Iran and Hezbollah and use all instruments of American power to punish Iran for proliferating its Hezbollah surrogates around the region to threaten U.S. allies."