The Saudi response was widely regarded as the latest escalation of tensions between the Arab Kingdom and Iran’s Shiite theocracy. The Yemeni Civil War largely functions as a proxy war between the two regional rivals, with Saudi Arabia leading a coalition to push back against the Houthis and, more broadly, against Iranian imperialism throughout the region. Yemen’s missile capabilities were much lower before the civil war than they are today, and the improvements are presumably due to Iran, which has previously been credited with bolstering missile capabilities for Hamas, Hezbollah, and others.
Despite this track record and in contrast to the Saudi assignation of blame to the Islamic Republic, Iranian officials deny that they have provided the Houthis with sophisticated missile technology or other direct forms of support. But several weapons caches have been seized en route from Iran to Houthi territory in Yemen, and it is all but certain that others have made it through the international blockade of the southern Arabian country.
Presumably influence by this and similar evidence, the United States weighed in on the attempted missile strike on Wednesday, repeating the Saudi accusations against Iran. As reported by the Associated Press, the White House statement on the topic vowed to stand with Persian Gulf allies against Iran’s blatant violations of international law. This, of course, comes as no surprise in light of President Donald Trump’s recent moves to further strengthen American posture toward Iran – a strategy that includes decertification of Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement and the imposition of broad-ranging counterterrorism sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The IRGC is responsible for the lion’s share of Iranian intervention into foreign territory, and despite its officials repeating denials of direct Iranian involvement with the Houthi, the IRGC also used the attempted missile strike to boast about Iran’s regional network and to predict additional attacks. A day after Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and IRGC head Mohammad Ali Bagheri issued statements praising the missile launch and predicting more of the same aimed at both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Houthis issued virtually identical threats.
On Wednesday, Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV quoted the political office of the Houthi movement as saying, “All airports, ports, border crossings and areas of any importance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be a direct target of our weapons, which is a legitimate right.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir asserted a similar right of the Arab kingdom to respond in kind if attacked by Iran, as reported by UPI. Presumably, this threat was intended to implicitly refer to an attack from Iran’s proxies as well as from the armed forces of the Islamic Republic itself. However, the Washington Post issued an analysis of Saudi Arabia’s multi-front response to Iranian imperialism in which it concluded that Riyadh was very unlikely to launch a direct military campaign, at least without the explicit consent of the United States, which has so far emphasizes a more indirect approach to containing Iranian influence.
Nevertheless, the Washington Post piece justified the expectation of ongoing escalation in a number of proxy conflicts, by no means limited to Yemen. In fact, the immediate aftermath of the Houth missile launch has seen a spate of accusations on both sides regarding Iranian and Saudi designs for areas of competing influence. Prominent among these is Lebanon, where Iran controls a significant portion of the political and social infrastructure through its sponsorship of the Hezbollah paramilitary group. Saudi interests in that same country had been advanced by its Saudi-origin Prime Minister Saad Hariri, until he unexpectedly resigned after traveling to Riyadh at the end of last week.
The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had responded publicly to this situation, calling it an act of “sedition” by Saudi Arabia against the government of Lebanon. Rouhani also called Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs “unprecedented”, on the assumption that Hariri had been directed or even forced to resign by his Saudi patrons. However, Hariri himself claimed to be in fear of potential assassination plots, presumably originating with Hezbollah. And as previously reported, his resignation came one day after a meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, a close advisor of the Iranian supreme leader, during which the Iranians may have issued an ultimatum regarding the protection of their militant proxy.
Indeed, in his resignation speech from Riyadh, which closely coincided with the Houthi missile launch, Hariri made explicit reference to the Iranian regime, accusing it of broad interference in Arab affairs and of using Hezbollah to hold Lebanon hostage. Separately, Saudi officials accused the Lebanese government of siding with Hezbollah and sowing strife in the region – actions that they characterized as possibly constituting a declaration of war against Saudi Arabia.
It may be difficult to determine which side, if either, is more correct in its accusations of undue interference by the other. But it is fairly clear that each side is proceeding with its foreign policy on the assumption that its rival’s influence presents a significant threat. According to the aforementioned Washington Post analysis, Saudi Arabia has full support from the Donald Trump White House in its efforts to confront Tehran on multiple fronts – a conclusion that was backed up by the White House statement on the Houthi missile launch.
But the same analysis also suggests that this confrontation has so far proven ineffective in contracting Iran’s imperial reach. No doubt this is largely because of countermeasures employed by the Iranian regime, which have helped to defend recent gains from such developments as the collapse of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, the United States, and their allies face an uphill battle to weaken Iranian influence there, as a number of Iran-backed Shiite militias have become closely integrated into the country’s armed forces while retaining their own organizational structures. Meanwhile, Iranian officials are putting forth effort to encourage further cooperation between their government and that of Assad. Reuters reported that Velayati, the same Iranian figure who may have sparked the Lebanese PM’s resignation, was in the devastated city of Aleppo on Wednesday, where he once again praised a supposedly broad network of alliances centered on Tehran.
This visit came only about two weeks after Bagheri, the IRGC commander, made his own trip to Syria. And while Iran’s adversaries struggle to secure their own, comparable footholds in Syria, the IRGC’s sponsorship of and apparent provision of missile technology to the Houthi continues to force Saudi Arabia to play defense much closer to its own borders.