Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, demanded an answer to the question of how allies would come to the defence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE if, as Tehran has now pledged, there is a missile attack across the Gulf.
Speaking of how he woke up on Tuesday morning to a video containing the missile threat from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to use its ballistic missile arsenal against the US allies in the region, Mr Otaiba warned in New York of how the threat from Tehran was growing.
“If a missile is launched at Saudi Arabia and UAE what will be reaction be and how will we be defended?” he asked at a panel that also included Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, and Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran.
“I ask that hypothetically but it's not really hypothetical because the threat was in a video this morning.”
Welcoming Washington’s decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran and move to heighten pressure on Iran to curb its international aggression, Mr Jubeir and Mr Otaiba said that external pressure was key to Iran changing course.
“I think any recalibaration of Iranian foreign policy will come from external policy,” said Mr Otaiba, who added the isolation of Tehran must be backed up by European and Asian nations as well as the US.
Referring to the series of protests against the regime by hard-pressed Iranians angered by economic conditions despite the country’s international rehabilitation, Mr Jubeir said the regime was unlikely to change of its own volition. “Unless the pressure internally is extremely intense, I don’t believe they will open up, I think they are too ideological for that,” he said.
Warnings that Iran was orchestrating a Lebanon style takeover of the state in Yemen, the panelists said the recent UN-led mediation had exposed the Iranian role in directing the Houthi leadership.
“We have a vested interest in ensuring what happened in Lebanon does not happen in Yemen,” said Mr Otaiba, who pointed to the September 6th talks in Geneva that failed after the Houthi delegation decided not to travel. “Our analysis tells us it was based on instructions from Tehran that they did not turn up.”
Mr Hook warned of a region-wide conflict if the Iranian missiles either fired from its own territory or from Yemen were to strike an urban area or cause significant loss of life. “We’re accumulating risk in the Middle East by not getting at Iran’s proliferation,” he said. “There is something brazen about this missile behaviour, they’re not even hiding it. This sort of escalation is deeply concerning and will be met with a swift and decisive response.”
The Saudi foreign minister was reminded that he was the target of an Iranian assassination plot while he served as the country’s ambassador to Washington. He added that his country has been targeted 197 times by suspected Iranian missiles.
“The Iranians have to decide are they a nation state or a revolution,” he said, underlining that Iran had diverted virtually all its additional revenues from the removal of sanctions into its regional agenda, including support for the Houthi rebellion. “How can we negotiate with a state that wants to kill us.”
Mr Hook said the 2015 deal deserved to be binned, in part because it did not impose treaty-level obligations on Iran to conform to good behaviour. “The plan of action was a 15-20 year deal with a president who had two years left in office,” he said. “It had infirm and unstable foundations.”