Pentagon Contradicts Itself on Origins of Iranian Drone

Walks back official's claim that attack on British tanker came from Yemen

A picture taken on August 3, 2021 shows the Israeli-linked Japanese-owned tanker MT Mercer Street, off the port of the Gulf Emirate of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. - On July 29, two crew members of the tanker MT Mercer Street, managed by a prominent Israeli businessman's company, were killed in what appears to be a drone attack off Oman, the vessel's London-based operator and the US military say, with Israel blaming Iran. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP) (Photo by KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)
August 13, 2021

The Biden administration is at odds with itself over the origins of an Iranian drone. The Pentagon’s spokesman contradicted a top defense official who told the Senate that an Iranian-built drone that killed two crewmembers on a British vessel in July was deployed from Yemen.

Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.) on Tuesday asked a top Pentagon official about weapons flowing from Iran to its Houthi allies in Yemen. "It’s been reported that the recent attack on the Mercer Street tanker in the Gulf of Oman originated from Yemen with Iranian-produced drones," Young said. "Can you confirm those public reports?"

Dana Stroul, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, was unequivocal that the drone came from Yemen. "Yes, I can confirm the reports," Stroul told Young. Stroul's testimony was backed up by British newspapers that reported that a United Kingdom special operations team is pursuing Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen who allegedly launched the strike.

Hours after the hearing, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby tweeted, "Dana Stroul did not confirm Mercer Street UAV attack emanated from Yemen."

State Department officials cut off aid to Saudi allies in their war against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen in February, allowing the group to stage operations outside the country and brush back attempts from Saudi Arabia to corner the militants. The Houthis have waged a violent bombing campaign against targets within Saudi Arabia with the aid of Iranian weapons, and now appear to have extended their reach to maritime targets like Mercer Street. The attack comes months after the Biden administration de-listed the Houthis as a terrorist organization.

Kirby’s contradiction of Stroul’s testimony is the latest instance of the Biden administration's struggle to confront Iran for aggressive action in the region while it renegotiates a nuclear deal. The Washington Free Beacon reported on Monday that Biden’s nominee for a top arms control position has a track record of denying that Iran seeks to build nuclear weapons, contrary to Israeli intelligence and pledges from Iran’s leaders.

Young told the Free Beacon that while Biden’s Pentagon can try to clarify Stroul’s remarks, it "cannot walk back the clear threat Iran and its proxies pose to the region."

"The administration must be clear about the threats posed by Iran and its proxies throughout the region," Young said. "I pressed the witness about the threats to commercial shipping emanating from Iranian-backed groups in Yemen. The Pentagon can walk back the answers provided in hearings but they cannot walk back the clear threat Iran and its proxies pose to the region."

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.