On Monday it was widely reported that the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen had launched their farthest-reaching missile strike against targets in Saudi Arabia. According to Al Jazeera, Houthi officials quickly took credit for the missile launch, identifying the weapon as a Burqan 2H ballistic missile, which has a range of over 500 miles. The Saudis launched a SCUD missile to intercept, but the Houthi weapon was not destroyed until it was over King Khaled International Airport outside the capital city of Riyadh.
After the successful intercept, the Saudis wasted little time in assigning ultimate responsibility for the strike to regional rival Iran, which has long been accused of arming the Houthis and supporting them both materially and logistically. The Iranians have repeatedly denied such outright support, but since the outbreak of the war and the installation of an internationally enforced blockade of Yemen, several weapons caches have been captured that were apparently en route from Iran to Houthi-controlled areas of the Arabian country.
The ballistic missile launch was a “clear act of aggression” by Iran, according to a statement issued by the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting back against the Houthi on behalf of Yemen’s elected President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. The broader mission of the coalition is generally understood to be the confrontation of Iranian influence throughout the Arab world, and the emerging war of words over the Houthi missile launch takes place against the background of an increase in overall tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Predictably, Iranian officials dismissed the Arab accusations of an Iranian hand in the attempted missile strike. As CNN reports, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the hardline paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps insisted that the Burqan H2 had been domestically produced in Yemen. However, the range of Yemeni and particularly Houthi missiles was considerably shorter at the outset of the civil war in 2015. And Iran has been reliably credited with helping to extend the missile range of other non-state actors. Sometimes, as in the case of the dramatic boost in missile range for Hamas around 2014, this has been accomplished through the provision of Iranian technology and know-how to missile production sites in other states.
Iran’s official denials of responsibility for the Yemeni missile launch were also undercut by the regime’s immediate rhetorical response. A video report pointed to some of the ways in which the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tacitly celebrated the incident. Media outlets close to the IRGC described the strike as a “missile slap to the face” of the Saudi kingdom and predicted more strikes of a similar nature. And Kayhan newspaper, which is a direct mouthpiece for the supreme leader, even went as far as to suggest that in the future a Houthi missile might target Doha, the capital of the Saudi-allied United Arab Emirates.
The report concluded that with foreign proxies now using IRGC missiles, “the Guards are confident of their power to threaten Iran’s regional rivals.” Meanwhile, another report from the same outlet indicated that there were signs the Islamic Republic had moved to make such threats in the days immediately preceding the Houthi missile strike. Specifically, it called attention to the November 4 resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri – a move that was announced from Saudi Arabia in a further sign of discord and increasingly clear delineation of the regional fault lines.
The report notes that Hariri had represented Saudi interests in Lebanon in much the same way that Hezbollah commander Hassan Nasrallah represents Iranian interests. His resignation may therefore represent a contraction of Saudi influence in that country and a weakening of the political infrastructure that formerly prevented full-scale Iranian dominance of that country. IranWire also emphasizes that the resignation came one day after Hariri had met with Ali Akbar Velayati, a close advisor of the Iranian supreme leader. This seems to suggest that Velayati had issued an ultimatum for the Lebanese prime minister to shield Hezbollah from emerging pressures coming from Saudi-led Arab powers and particularly from the United States.
In his announcement, Hariri claimed that one of the reasons for his resignation was because he feared the possibility of an assassination plot like the one that claimed the life of his father, apparently at the hands of Hezbollah. By delivering that message from Saudi Arabia, he seemed to be sending the message that that country would stand in his defense, which led some to describe the speech as a “Saudi declaration of war against Iran.”
Such observers pointed in particular to the portion of Hariri’s speech in which he addressed Iran directly: “I want to tell Iran and its followers that they are losing in their interferences in the affairs of Arab nations. Our nation will rise just as it did before, and the hands that will harm it will be cut.”
Just two days later, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia responded to the Houthi missile strike by saying that it “could rise to be considered an act of war” by Iran, thus potentially setting the stage for the Saudis to justify formalizing their implicit declaration of war. CNN reported on Monday, as many outlets have done, that Saudi intervention in Yemen is a de facto proxy war with Iran, and one that threatens to bring together multiple other theaters of regional conflict.
In light of this situation, the two main regional rivals are evidently scrambling to deepen their influence among established and potential partner states. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led an effort to punish neighboring Qatar into disavowing its public outreach to the Islamic Republic. But for its part, Iran has provided aid to Qatar in order to urge the small and relatively impoverished nation to more fully break with its Arab partners.
Meanwhile, to the east of Iran, the regime has been working to expand its partnership with Pakistan and specifically to add a military dimension to recent, economically-focused collaboration.
Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, reported on Monday that the Chief of Staff of the Parkistani army had arrived in Tehran to meet with his counterpart and discuss closer military cooperation.
At the same time, shipments of goods from Parkistan’s rival India have started to be channeled through the Chabahar port, a recent joint venture of India and Iran. Voice of America news reported upon this at the end of October and noted that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had promised that there would be no American threat to the operation of the hub, which he characterized as being designed for regional stability.
But as tensions continue to escalate to the west of Iran, American allies may urge the White House to reconsider this position, on the understanding that any newly established revenue streams and/or military cooperation agreements with Iran threaten the stability of the region, as long as the Islamic Republic continues to celebrate or facilitate efforts by its regional proxies to attack Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers.