The confrontation between two sworn geopolitical opponents in the Middle East has become even more threatening. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) have come very close to an extremely dangerous situation which brings the entire Middle East in direct confrontation, as the degree of hostility between the two poles of power has reached its zenith in recent years.
The Role of Houthis in Iran – Saudi Arabia Conflict
The reason for the bilateral exacerbation, in which other Middle Eastern players are gradually drawn in, was the launch on November 4 by Yemeni rebel Houthis of the Burkan-2 (Volcano-2) ballistic missile on the territory of Saudi Arabia. The rebels of the Shiite movement Ansar Allah, one of the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, struck a missile on the north-eastern suburb of Riyadh, the area of the international airport of the Saudi capital. Victims and destruction did not follow, but the rocket overcame an impressive distance (about 1000 km) before it was destroyed by the American Patriot system in service with the KSA.
The rocket launches of the Houthis repeatedly worried the Saudi side. So, on May 19 this year, a few hours before the arrival of Donald Trump in the largest Arab monarchy with his first foreign visit after his election to the presidency of the United States in 2016, another ballistic carrier was sent to Riyadh.
And then, and this time, the Saudis and their American allies had serious reasons to assume that the “Iranian hand” is driving the Yemeni rebels. In May, Trump, who demonstrates an unprecedented anti-Iranian attitude, even by the standards of all previous US administrations. In November, the “Shiite message” towards Washington and its Arabian partners was also quite clear. November 4 in Tehran and throughout the Islamic Republic celebrated the next (38th) anniversary of the events of 1979 around the American embassy in the Iranian capital. In Iran, this is the National Day of Combating World Imperialism. Therefore, the first year of the Iranians’ celebration of the days of resistance to “US imperialism” in the Middle East, when an aristocratic anti-Iranian is sitting in the White House, should have received the corresponding symbolism. According to him, Iran has so strengthened its positions in the region and found new partners in the Arab countries that can project military power not only from its territory. So in any case, many politicians and military in the United States and Saudi Arabia regarded the semantic load of the missile strike of November 4.
Tehran refutes its own involvement in the supply of not only ballistic missiles but also any shock and defensive weapons systems to Houthis. Representatives of Iran’s military and political leadership point to the use of the Ansar Alla fighters with missiles and other weapons that they inherited from the Yemeni army after the start of the civil war in the country. This has its own logic, there are convincing arguments, at least taking into account the fact that until recently, the government troops remained loyal to the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who were loyal to the former Houthis ally.
However, the fact of Iran’s “hand in the military and other support of Yemeni Shiites is considered by Americans and Saudis as an undeniable testimony of another (after Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain) interference of Tehran in the internal affairs of Arab countries. A year ago, in October 2016, officials of the US State Department categorically stated that Iran would provide “critical” military support to the Houthis in their missile strikes on the territory of the KSA.
According to Iranian sources and the Houthis themselves, they launched an attack on the Saudi territory, attacked the ships of the Arabian monarchies in the Bab-el Mandeb Strait by rockets of local origin. It is alleged that part of the missile weapons went into the arsenals of Houthis from the warehouses of the former Armed Forces of Yemen, and the other, allegedly, is manufactured and perfected at the production facilities under the control of Ansar Allah. Nevertheless, the Houthis showed a very representative line (in terms of the range of destruction) in the combat conditions, which military experts in the West tend to consider analogous to Iran’s short- and medium-range missile.
Did Iran Arm Saudi Arabia’s Opponents?
It is important to note that there were no direct proofs of Iran’s supply of rockets and other strike weapons to Yemen by Tehran’s opponents. It is possible that something could be transferred to the Houthis reserves before the establishment of an air and sea blockade of Yemen, which is provided by the Air Force and the Navy of the United States and Saudi Arabia. But approximately since March 2015, when the Saudis built their Arab coalition against Houthis and began to connect an American partner to it, Iranian arms shipments to Yemen proved extremely difficult. Among other things, it is too high for Tehran to run into significant foreign policy costs if it is “caught by the hand”.
In the ongoing history of the missile aggravation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the authorities of the latter seek to extract a number of military and political benefits. The Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom under the elderly monarch Salman ibn Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, after the rocket attack from Yemen, accused Iran of “aggression”. Moreover, the heir to the Saudi throne has pointed to the grounds for Riyadh to consider the actions of the Iranian side as an “act of war”.
Inflating the confrontation with the Iran allows the KSA to “tie” the Trump administration to the Saudi agenda in the Middle East. Riyadh needs Washington’s firm guarantees to ensure the security of the Kingdom, its effective cover from the missile threat. The lion’s share of the accusations against Teheran is voiced by its opponents in connection with the missile program of the “mullah regime”. The launches of “Iranian missiles” from Yemen by pro-Iranian Houthis provide the Saudis with a strong argument about the release of this IRI program to the level of the transboundary threat.
According to experts, most of the available Houthis missiles in the arsenal would not able to deliver warheads to large urban agglomerations of the Saudi Arabia (Riyadh, Jeddah, Yanbu), however, the fact of a permanent missile threat from Iran and its regional allies is a massive concern for Saudi’s.
In this regard, it should be noted that the Iranians themselves are not averse to warming the alarming state of Arab neighbors over the Persian Gulf. So, in the newspaper “Keikhan” close to the ruling circles of the Islamic Republic of Iran (it is believed that the views of the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and personally the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Seyyid Ali Khamenei, are frequently expressed in the pages of this Tehran publication), following the missile attack on November 4 publication with a talking title: “Missile attack on Riyadh. The next target is Dubai.”
The United Arab Emirates is second only to Saudi Arabia, on the provisional list of Iran’s enemies among the Gulf monarchies. Between the UAE and the KSA, there has even developed a kind of competition for the palm tree in defending the interests of the Arab world through the prism of its protection from the constant Iranian threat. The crisis around Qatar, the recent resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, are not always coinciding interests, but the generally coordinated actions between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in Yemen are indicators of their common anti-Iranian efforts.
Affairs in Yemen from the Saudi coalition have long been at a dead end. In the neighboring Kingdom, the country established a status quo between the Ansar Alla insurgents and the government forces supported by the coalition forces. KSA showed its own impotence to achieve a decisive turning point in the war with the Houthis. But the “Yemeni project” of the Al-Saud family is associated with the name of the heir to the throne. Therefore, Prince Mohammed cannot accept the irreversibility of the presence of Houthis in the major cities of Yemen, including the capital, Sana.
At the end of March next year, the third anniversary of the beginning of the military campaign of the Saudi coalition in Yemen will come. To this boundary, Riyadh clearly does not want to come up with the same weight of an unshakable status quo on the military front, hopes are associated with the expansion of the role of the US Armed Forces in the conflict region. In particular, the Kingdom offers US partners not only significantly strengthen their intelligence capabilities to track the missile threat from Yemen, with a further warning from the Saudi side but also to begin destroying the Husit missile installations before launching.
In Riyadh’s “rocket history”, there is also an intrasound element. King Salman blessed his beloved offspring for the elimination of any threat to his future rule. The 32-year-old Prince Mohammed commensurates many of his actions on the external front, including with the establishment of “extinguishing” the internal resistance to the reforms being carried out. The beginning of an irreconcilable fight against corruption in the KSA was announced the same day when a Volcano-2 missile was knocked over the Saudi capital. On November 4, the Anti-Corruption Committee began its work in Saudi Arabia. For a day he brought charges of bribery and money laundering to dozens of people. Arrested more than 10 princes, dozens of current and former ministers, other officials and businessmen. Among the detainees – one of the richest people in the Middle East, the Saudi prince Al-Walid bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who previously held the post of finance minister of the country.
The anti-corruption committee was created by the decree of King Salman, he was headed by Crown Prince Mohammed. The Committee has the right to conduct its own investigations, arrests, introduce a travel ban, freeze bank assets and carry out other actions in the fight against corruption schemes and their participants.
Among the persons under arrest (according to information on November 10, there are already more than 200 subjects of the Kingdom), there are many representatives of other clans of the KSA, in addition to the ruling Sudeyri, to which belong King Salman and Prince Mohammed. The lightning rise of the young prince to the very top of the hierarchy of power, which also received virtually unlimited opportunities to decide the fate of monarchs, many in the Kingdom did not come. And to suppress the maturing fronts in its embryo is best against the background of the struggle with the common external enemy, for which the IRI is the KSA.
The actions of Shiite rebels in Yemen provided new arguments to the Arab opponents of Iran regarding the accusation of the latter in fomenting “sectarian conflicts” in the region (Sunni Shiites) and indirectly using their missile capabilities against the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The crisis is growing every day with new episodes. On November 10, in Bahrain, a pipeline was broken, supplying oil to this country from Saudi Arabia. The Bahraini authorities blamed this sabotage on Iran, calling it “a dangerous escalation.”
The Arabs promise to give the Iranians an answer, both military and “ideological”, as stated on November 12 by the UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Mohammed Gargash. There is a new dramatic page in the geopolitical antagonism of Tehran and the Arabian capitals. Riyad consolidates around itself the camp of principled opponents of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the spiral of confrontation is inexorably twisted over the confrontational scenario. The chances for a relaxation of the situation are almost not visible, the expectations of a military clash in the Gulf region are increasing.
(1) On November 4 (the 13th Aban of the Iranian calendar), three important events took place in the history of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. On November 4, 1964 (13th Aban 1343) the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Imam Rukholl Khomeini, was exiled to Turkey. On November 4, 1978 (13 Abana 1357) gendarmes of the Shah’s regime were shot by students of the Tehran University. On November 4, 1979 (13 Abana 1358), revolutionary students seized the American embassy in Tehran and took its employees hostage.
(2) On 11 October, with the consent of the Saudi authorities (the airspace over Yemen is controlled by the Air Force of the Arab Coalition), a group of Russian surgeons arrived in the Yemeni capital, Sanu. Medics from Russia urgently operated on the 75-year-old ex-President Saleh. According to some sources, the operation took place in the building of the Russian embassy in Sanaa.
(3) At the end of March this year, Qaher-M2 missiles (a modified version of Soviet anti-aircraft missiles from the S-75 Dvina complex intended for firing at ground targets) with a range of up to 400 km and a mass of a throwing warhead of 350 kg were launched over the Saudi territory. It is reported that the previous version of Qaher-1 was inferior both in range and in useful combat load (only 195 kg). In May, the Yemeni rebels used tactical missiles “Najim al-Takib” (“Piercing Star”) with a range of 75 km with a warhead weighing 75 kg (Michael Knights, Countering Iran’s Missile Proliferation in Yemen, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 8, 2017).
(4) On October 6, the US approved a deal for the delivery of THAAD systems worth $ 15 billion to Saudi Arabia. Earlier, KSA asked the US to sell 44 THAAD launchers, 360 interceptor missiles, 16 mobile tactical fire control and communications stations, and 7 radars AN / TPY-2. Washington notes that the implementation of this program will help maintain the security of Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf in the face of Iranian and other regional threats. The first foreign buyer of THAAD was the UAE, who signed a contract for the acquisition of the system in 2011