New escalation by Yemen’s Houthis ratchets up Saudi-Iranian tensions
LONDON - A volley of missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthis towards Saudi cities has increased tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud said the kingdom was responding “firmly” to hostile acts targeting its security. He was referring to ballistic missiles fired March 25 by Iran-allied Houthi forces in Yemen that were aimed at cities, including Riyadh, across the kingdom.
The attack came on the third anniversary of the start of the conflict in Yemen and was regarded by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in support of the internationally recognised government in Yemen as a clear escalation of the conflict.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki said Saudi air defences intercepted seven missiles headed towards Riyadh, Khamis Mushait, Najran and Jizan. Debris from the missiles killed an Egyptian national and injured two other people. Another missile fired towards Najran was intercepted March 31 by Saudi air defences, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported.
The Houthis have clearly enhanced their military capabilities since the start of the war three years ago despite a UN-ordered arms embargo. Evidence strongly suggests that the rebels’ advanced weaponry is being provided by Iran.
Maliki, speaking at a news conference March 26, displayed an Iran-made rocket that was allegedly smuggled to the rebels inside Yemen before being seized by coalition troops.
Al Arabiya reported that the intercepted weapons shipment included Iran-manufactured Sayyad missiles.
Maliki said the coalition uncovered intelligence that the Houthis were preparing to fire Iran-made Qiam missiles, 11.5-metre weapons capable of carrying a 750-kilogram warhead, at Saudi Arabia on Saudi National Day, September 23.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have long accused Iran of arming the Houthis and, following the March 25 attack, Reuters cited an unidentified “senior Iranian official” as saying that Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds Force discussed with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in February the means to further “empower” the Houthis.
“Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East,” the official told Reuters.
Iran’s military support seems to be taking new shapes. A report by the UK-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a private organisation that tracks Tehran’s worldwide supply of weapons, claimed that roadside bombs found in Yemen bore similar hallmarks to those used by Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, as well as by Shia insurgents in Iraq and Bahrain.
“What we’re hoping this does is make plausible deniability not very plausible,” Tim Michetti, head of CAR’s regional operations, told the Associated Press.
Most Arab and Western governments denounced the March 25 attack and many pointed out Iran’s suspected involvement.
The UN Security Council issued a statement that “expressed alarm at the stated intention of the Houthis to continue these attacks against Saudi Arabia, as well as to launch additional attacks against other states in the region.”
In February, Russia vetoed a British-sponsored draft resolution that would have held Iran responsible for arming the Houthis.
The Saudi-led coalition vowed to respond “at the appropriate time” to the attack but Saudi officials have been reluctant about engaging in direct retaliation against Iran. Some Saudi writers, however, said the mounting evidence against Iran put Tehran on a collision course with the kingdom.
“The conclusive evidence that Iran has supplied the Houthis with the missiles used to target Saudi Arabia and sent Revolutionary Guards and perhaps Hezbollah experts as well, to Yemen, makes the confrontation with Iran, whatever its form is, imminent,” wrote Saudi analyst Mashari al-Zaydi in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz sees tighter international sanctions as the way to avoid a major conflict with Iran, telling the Wall Street Journal: “If we don’t succeed in what we are trying to do, we will likely have war with Iran in 10-15 years.”
Western analysts said Crown Prince Mohammed might use the missile attacks to lobby against Iran but is unlikely to advocate rash reactions. Ehsan Khoman, MENA strategist at MUFG consultancy, told Reuters the situation could allow the crown prince to appear to be “a more restrained and composed leader.”
“(He) may leverage the recent Houthi missile attacks to strengthen his narrative that Iran’s encroachment is undermining regional stability and that a more concerted international effort is needed to contain Iran.”