Regional tensions escalated as Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for an attempted missile strike on its capital by Yemeni rebels. On November 4, Saudi defenses intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels (also known as Ansar Allah) at a Riyadh airport. President Trump quickly endorsed Saudi claims of Iranian responsibility, telling reporters, “A shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia.” Iran has armed the Houthi insurgents fighting the Saudi-backed government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but the Islamic Republic’s precise role in enhancing Houthi ballistic missile capabilities remains uncertain.
Prior to the 2015 intervention in the Yemeni civil war by a Saudi-led coalition, no known missile in the Yemeni arsenal was believed to have the range needed to target Riyadh, which is just over 900 km north of the border with Yemen. The known Yemeni inventory included various liquid-fueled Scuds as well as the solid-fueled OTR-21 Tochka (also known as the SS-21 Scarab). The Scud-C variant has an estimated range of 600 km while the Tochka, depending on the variant, can travel up to 120 km.
Mere months into the war, the Houthis gained access to these ballistic missiles from military personnel who defected to their cause, and have fired Tochka and Scud missiles at the kingdom. Like Iran, the Houthis have also reverse-engineered surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-75 (SA-2), to produce surface-to-surface rockets like the Qaher-1 and Qaher-M2. This year, for the first time, Houthi missiles have come close to Riyadh on at least two occasions. The recent interception marks the third.
Enhanced Houthi missile capabilities have led Saudi and U.S. officials to postulate Iranian support. The munition fired by the Houthis on November 4 is the Burkan/Burqan-2H, a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) unique to Yemen. Like its predecessor the Burkan-1, the Burkan-2H is liquid-fueled and appears strikingly similar to a Soviet-made Scud missile. Although intercepted by Saudi defenses – likely the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) mobile missile defense system – the Burkan platform has grown the reach of Yemen’s ballistic missiles. In September, the top U.S. admiral in the Persian Gulf echoed the Saudi logic, saying, “These types of weapons did not exist in Yemen before the conflict … It’s not rocket science to conclude that the Houthis are getting not only these systems but likely training and advice and assistance in how to use them.”
Traditionally, Iranian outlets have championed Houthi rocket and missile capabilities while claiming to have had no role in their development, transfer, or reverse-engineering. American officials, however, have directly implicated Iran. Less directly, a UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, established in 2014, gave credence to the theory of foreign support to the Houthi missile arsenal in its most recent report.
But to date, neither Washington nor Riyadh have released evidence to support their claims. Even though it is highly likely that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is advising in Yemen and amplifying Houthi missile capabilities through provision of parts or technical know-how, the information underwriting this assessment has not been made public.
Open-source reporting does demonstrate Iran’s engagement in light weapons smuggling via land and sea routes. For example, Iran utilized land routes through Oman, which borders Yemen. Tehran has also delivered arms via sea. Yet intercepted arms transfers from Iran have, to date, not included ballistic missile components. Rather, Iran’s provision of weapons to the Houthis has included anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, and other weapons like sniper rifles and machine guns. These, when coupled with weapons long present in Yemen from China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union/Russia, accomplish Iran’s goal of bleeding Saudi Arabia on its own doorstep with little cost.
Irrespective of the precise mechanism, Tehran’s support of the Houthi insurgency enhances Iranian regional influence at minimal cost. Saudi Arabia, however, is newly reassured of America’s firm support and may be seeking to exact a higher price.