Judging by recent events, Iran appears to be heading towards a new escalation with the Gulf countries. The stalemate between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition persists, as neither of the parties has managed to strike a decisive blow. However, the Houthis have discovered a weak point in the Saudi defense–the vulnerability of Saudi cities to Iranian missiles fired periodically by the Houthis onto Saudi territory.
On November 4, 2017, an Iranian-made Burqan 2H (“volcano”) ballistic missile was intercepted near the area of the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. The missile was launched from the Houthi-controlled area in North Yemen. Sources at the King Khalid airport revealed that missile debris had hit one of the fuel vehicles on the outskirts of the airport. The missile was reportedly destroyed by the Patriot air defense system.
It is noteworthy that the incident occurred shortly after Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’d al-Hariri unexpectedly resigned in a televised speech from Saudi Arabia. In the speech, Hariri stated that he feared for his life and accused Iran and its proxies of destabilizing his country and the region. However, this was not the first missile attack. On July 22, 2017, the same type of missile struck the Saudi port of Yanbu, where Aramco oil company facilities are located. On July 27, 2017, Houthis also fired a missile near Mecca. Finally, Abd al-Salam, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) Movement spokesperson, stated on October 29, 2017, that the movement planned to step up its “combat operations” on the Saudi Arabian border. He added, “Abu Dhabi is our main military aim and a direct target for our ballistic missiles.”
A statement was released by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen following the missile attack on Riyadh. It read that Iran’s supplying of ballistic missiles to the Houthis was a direct act of Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia, which could be considered an act of war against the kingdom and to which the Saudis had the right to respond at the appropriate time and place. Shortly after, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi responded to the Saudi statement, calling it destructive and inflammatory.
While these are just some recent events, the crisis runs much deeper. A number of sources, Russian included, have posited that the firing of missiles in Yemen is likely being carried out either by Iranian advisers or the Lebanese Hizballah–given that the Yemeni Houthis do not have the equipment and technical capability to employ such advanced weaponry. Last, the Iranian media has itself referred to the missile in question as a Burkan, which is an Iranian modification of the North Korean Hwosong (Scud) missile. Some reports also suggest that Iran may be testing a new missile guidance system, and this was in fact a warning to the Saudis and Emiratis. This could explain why the missile was not loaded with a real warhead.
The threat to the UAE indicates the complexity of the Yemeni crisis. In principle, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pursuing different–if not conflicting–goals in Yemen. The main interests of the UAE in Yemen are the destruction of al-Qa’ida–as well as other, more moderate Islamists (such as al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood party)–and supporting the separatist Southern Transitional council in order to promote Yemen’s partition into Northern and Southern Yemen as was the case prior to 1990. Unlike the Saudis, the fight against the Houthis and Iran is not the UAE’s primary goal.
What then led to the Houthi–and therefore Iranian–ire? In order to address this, one must look at what has been going on behind the scenes: The Emiratis have been actively attempting to destroy the shaky alliance between the Houthis and the ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Salih. The Houthis rely on those tribes that are loyal to Salih, and without him are likely to lose. The UAE also attempted to mediate between Salih and the Saudis, who support the legitimate President Abdrabbuh Hadi–who has been residing in Riyadh. The Houthis also attacked Emirati vessels in Yemeni ports. Because the Emiratis are not as active as the Saudis in the war on the Houthis, one could assume that UAE meddling with Salih in order to break the alliance with the Houthis is the real concern for Iran, and to some degree for Moscow as well.
Salih, despite being a northerner, has old Russian ties dating back to the “Soviet period” of Yemen, when the USSR actively supported socialist Southern Yemen. Yemeni sources have been circulating rumors that Salih wishes to leave Yemen for Russia, particularly following his conflict with the Houthis and the siege on his home in Sana’a. The Iranians are gravely concerned with Salih’s attempts to reach a compromise with the Saudis–with Moscow’s help. However, Russia’s approach is entirely different. As one Russian analyst explained, Russia needs Salih in Sana’a in order to maintain the alliance with the Houthis and prevent a Saudi victory. In this case, Russia has adopted a strategy similar to that of its frozen conflicts in Ukraine and Ossetia. The goal is to “deter” Saudis from becoming more active in other regional conflicts, such as Syria, and to “punish” them for their alleged support of Chechen jihadists in the early 2000s.
Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’d Hariri’s resignation was anything but normal. It is unheard of that a prime minister would announce his resignation in a live broadcast on a foreign television channel. Hariri’s decision, of course, came as complete surprise, with no previous signs. Though hostile to Iran and Hizballah, Sa’d Hariri lacks the charisma of his father, who was assassinated by Hizballah agents. It is unlikely that Hizballah or Iran had planned to assassinate Sa’d. Nonetheless, Hariri’s stepdown is an image blow to Nasrallah and Iran: Without a Sunni prime minister, it will be difficult for Hizballah to represent Lebanon as anything other than an Iranian Hizballah franchise. Moreover, there have been reports linking Hariri to high-ranking Saudi officials who have fallen in disgrace due to their opposition to the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. If true, the Hariri saga could be viewed as a calculated move by Prince Mohammad bin Salman: The crown prince wishes to change the image of the kingdom as a corrupt gerontocratic theocracy by fighting corruption and driving modernization, a policy directly related to the struggle against Iranian expansionism.
As for the Iranian response to the missile attack on Riyadh, in an anonymous op-ed, the leading Iranian newspaper and mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader Khamene’i, Keyhan, bragged about the attack, claiming it was a justified response to Saudi “aggression against defenseless children and women of Yemen.” The article emphasized that the Houthi threat was very real, such that “even the princes of Dubai realize that the recent threat of the Abd al-Malik Houthi [to strike Dubai] is very serious. In addition to their long-range, the missiles have high precision strike capability.” The article also went on to argue that “the strike on Riyadh proved that the political theatre is the scene of the realization of the Divine promise.” As Keyhan is Khamene’i’s mouthpiece, the exact wording is important, and it is very clear that this is the official Iranian stance. The piece is a classic specimen of official Iranian propaganda: It downplays the confessional Shi’i aspects of Iran and does not mention Shi’ism at all. Instead, it focuses on the revolutionary dimension of Islam through the use of third-worldist terminology of the Islamic Revolution. It expresses disdain for “Western capitalists,” while emphasizing such terms as “people” and “revolutionaries.”
Iran has thus managed to create a regional system of “communicated vessels” between various regions of tension wherein its proxies (like Hizballah in Lebanon and to a lesser extent the Houthis) are acting.
The article continued, “Now, the princes who have been grappling all the richness of the people of Saudi Arabia will not be safe in their magnificent palaces. They must accept the new conditions and escape from Yemen. The Emiratis also realize that their turn has come, and they will have to pay the price of their crimes in Yemen. Stormy events are coming soon.”
The op-ed added that the “missile attack on Riyadh demonstrated that the level of the Saudi military capacity is less than what was estimated by experts.”
“Following the attack, Saudi media argued that the Saudi Patriot air defense system targeted the missile. However, several hours later, authorities at the King Khalid International Airport admitted that the missile had hit the target…. [Information about] possible casualties and damage as a result of the strike was not leaked to the media.”
The Keyhan article further argued, “This event proves that America has abandoned Saudi Arabia in the face of danger; more precisely, we can say that America can do nothing for Saudi Arabia. These threats and declarations show that the situation in the region has changed, and proceeding from that, not only Saudi Arabia but also Dubai and Abu Dhabi, even if they have not yet been targeted, will no longer continue to be a safe space for Western capitalists. Now it is Ansar Allah [Houthis] and the Yemeni revolutionaries who set targets for long-range missiles; perhaps Riaydh, Jeddah, Ta’if, and Aramco or perhaps the port of Dubai. At any rate, the choice is in the hands of the Yemen’s revolutionaries!”