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Russia's support for Iran's proxy war in Yemen is further proof it's enemy No. 1

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, right. Following a Russian veto, the United Nations adopted a toothless resolution drafted by Russia merely renewing the previous arms embargo and piously expressing "grave distress" at the "continued deterioration of the devastating humanitarian situation in Yemen." (Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The Russians have done it again. They have castrated the United Nations and reduced the organization to irrelevance in exactly the type of situation it was created for.

On Feb. 28, Russia defied the U.S. and 10 other states at the U.N. Security Council in vetoing a resolution that would have held Iran accountable for its proxy war in Yemen.

Only one other country, Bolivia, stood with Russia. Even China had the sense to abstain in the face of strong evidence of Iran’s breach of previous U.N. resolutions, proving that the greatest threat to the U.S. and to peace everywhere now comes from Russia. The U.S. representative has called the Russian position “perverse” and said that “we will not stop until Tehran is stopped.” Now is the time for action.

The conflict in Yemen has claimed at least 100 Houthi lives over the last week alone. During just the first week of Feb. 2018, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that 27 civilians were killed and 76 injured. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused parties of carrying out sniper attacks and “indiscriminate shelling” and labelled the conflict as “not just escalating but inescapable.”

The total death toll in Yemen since the current conflict began in 2015 is more than 10,000. More than 5,200 of those killed are civilians. The independent Security Council Report documents that this is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with “22 million people requiring assistance, 8 million people at risk of famine, a cholera epidemic that has exceeded a million cases, and a spreading outbreak of diphtheria.” How many more deaths will it take for the U.N. and the international community to act decisively against Iran?

Iran’s involvement is now undeniable, despite the protestations of its Russian benefactor. The fig leaf of plausible deniability has been stripped bare by the Yemen Panel of Experts’ final report to the 2140 Sanctions Committee in late Jan. 2018.

The panel “identified missile remnants, related military equipment and military unmanned aerial vehicles that are of Iranian origin and were brought into Yemen after the imposition of the targeted arms embargo.” Further, the U.N. panel found that Iran “failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of Burkan-2H short-range ballistic missiles, field storage tanks for liquid bipropellant oxidizer for missiles and Ababil-T (Qasef-1) unmanned aerial vehicles to the then Houthi-Saleh alliance,” placing it in violation of a U.N. resolution. The experts found that the “Houthis have also deployed improvised sea mines in the Red Sea, which represent a hazard for commercial shipping and sea lines of communication that could remain for as long as 6 to 10 years, threatening imports to Yemen and access for humanitarian assistance.”

Notably, the crucial language in the report against Iran is remarkably weak: “failing to take necessary measures,” rather than the reality that Iran is fueling the conflict through its armed proxies. Reading between the lines and behind this delicate balancing act, one can infer that the truth about Iranian involvement is more negative.

So, how exactly is Iran breaking international law? To recollect, Resolution 2216, adopted in April 2015, decided that “all Member States shall immediately take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to, or for the benefit of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abdullah Yahya Al Hakim, Abd Al-Khaliq Al-Huthi” and other individuals and entities “of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment … and technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance …”

This arms embargo was bolstered by another provision requiring neighboring states “to inspect… all cargo to Yemen” for prohibited items to enable the arms embargo. Further, the resolution demanded “all Yemeni parties, in particular the Houthis, fully implement Resolution 2201 (2015)” and not undermine the political transition in Yemen. It also demanded that the Houthis “immediately and unconditionally” end the use of violence, withdraw from territory they had seized, surrender arms, cease from committing actions within the jurisdiction of the legitimate government, end provocations directed at neighbouring states, release political prisoners, and end the recruitment and use of children as soldiers.

The evidence identified by the U.N. panel supports a conclusion that Iran is in violation of Resolution 2216. What did the U.N. do in response? Following the Russian veto, it adopted a toothless resolution drafted by Russia, merely renewing the previous arms embargo and piously expressing “grave distress” at the “continued deterioration of the devastating humanitarian situation in Yemen.”

This resolution will be as ineffective as the previous ones. As evident from statements made by the Iranian foreign minister recently, the country takes pride in its proxy contests with Saudi Arabia and Western states. These contests are crucial to its self-image as a major power in the region and are unlikely to cease as long as they are cheap.

The time is ripe for meaningful action — punitive sanctions backed up with real bite. The abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, which gives that country vast economic resources with which to pursue its rogue actions, must also be put in the balance. Unless Iran is willing to abide by its international law obligations it cannot be allowed to take its place amongst other peaceful trading states and its economic potential must be blunted by sanctions.

Sandeep Gopalan is pro vice-chancellor for Academic Innovation and a professor of law at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

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