In early Nov 2017, the confrontation of the two geopolitical arch-enemies in the Middle East became even more obvious: Iran and Saudi Arabia have approached to a very dangerous line and are now as hostile towards each other as never before.
The pretext was the recent step by the Yemeni Houthi rebels, who on Nov 4 launched a Burkan-2 (Volcano-2) ballistic missile towards the territory of Saudi Arabia, more specifically, towards the northeastern suburb of Riyadh. The missile caused no casualties but had passed almost 1,000 km before it being destroyed by the Saudis’ U.S.-made Patriot system.
This is not the first such attack: one more missile was fired at Riyadh, on May 19, a couple of hours before Donald Trump’s visit to the Saudi capital.
In both cases, the Saudis and the Americans suspect Iran. They think that it was the Iranians’ message to anti-Iranian Trump that in Saudi Arabia he was not safe. The Nov 4 attack was symbolical for the Iranians: on that day, they were celebrating the day of national fight against international imperialism (on Nov 4, 1979, Iranian students attacked the US embassy in Tehran and were holding 53 staff members hostage for 444 days) (1). The message was that Iran has become so strong in the region that it can demonstrate its military strength outside its territory.
The Iranians say that they have not supplied any ballistic missiles or any other arms to the Houthis. They argue that the Houthis are using the arms they “inherited” from the Yemeni army after the start of the civil war in Yemen. Their arguments do have sense as until now the Yemeni governmental troops have been the Houthis’ ally (2).
The Americans and the Saudi have their counterarguments: in Oct 2016, the U.S. Department of State reported Iran’s support for the Houthis’ rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia.
According to Iranian and Houthi sources, the missiles fired at Saudi ships in the Bab-el-Mandeb are of local origin: some of them have been “inherited” from the former Yemeni governmental forces, the others are being produced under the control of Ansar Allah – something we can hardly believe. In any case, the Houthis have quite a big arsenal of different missiles. Some western experts believe that they are analogues to Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles (3).
But they in the West have no direct proofs that the Houthis’ missiles are of Iranian origin. Since Mar 2015, when the Saudis formed a U.S.-sponsored anti-Houthi coalition and imposed an air and sea blockade of the Houthi regime, it has been extremely hard for anybody, including Iran, to supply any arms to Yemen. Besides, being caught red handed in Yemen would mean new anti-Iranian sanctions - something the Iranians hardly want.
But for the Saudis authorities this is a chance to get certain military and political benefits. After the Nov 4 attack, Saudi Crown Prince, de facto King of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman accused Iran of “aggression” and qualified the attack as an “act of war.”
The Saudis need strong guarantees that Trump will protect them from missile attacks. They keep slating Iran for its missile program and they see the last Houthi attack was a sign that this program has gone beyond Iran’s boundaries.
The Yemeni missiles are believed to be able to hit a lot of targets in Saudi Arabia and even though experts say that they will not be able to reach Riyadh, Jeddah and Yanbu, they still constitute a serious threat for Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians like to see the Saudis worried. The next day after the Nov 4 attack, Iran’s pro-governmental Kayhan newspaper published a headline saying: “Ansar Allah’s missile attack on Riyadh. The next target is Dubai.”
The United Arab Emirates are Iran’s second biggest enemy after Saudi Arabia. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are even competing for the right to be the major protector of the Arab world from the Iranian threat. But the crisis over Qatar, the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the joint efforts in Yemen have proved that they have common goals as far as Iran is concerned.
Both monarchies are actively buying U.S. arms, mostly, air and missile defense systems. Their contracts to buy American THAADs fit well into their common anti-Iranian strategy (4).
The Saudi anti-Houthi coalition is now in a deadlock in Yemen, where Ansar Allah has established a kind of a status quo with the Yemeni government. The Saudis have failed to turn things about in Yemen and have to put up with the presence of Houthis in the biggest Yemeni cities, including Sanaa.
In late Mar 2018, it will be the third year of the Saudi campaign in Yemen. The Saudis do not want to mark this date with what they have today and are doing their best to enlarge the Americans’ presence in the region. Particularly, they suggest that the Americans help them to track and destroy Houthi missiles systems.
This story has also internal Saudi implications: for Crown Prince Salman, this is a way to show his commitment and ability to be strong not only in the region but also inside his country, where he has launched a large-scale campaign against corruption and has already arrested ten princes, dozens of acting and former ministers and lots of government officials and businessmen (a total of 200 people). Among them is one of the richest people in the Middle East, Saudi prince and former finance minister Alwaleed Bin Talal and representatives of other Saudi clans.
Many people in Saudi Arabia do not like this. Salman needs to tame them and his anti-Iranian campaign is supposed to help him in the matter.
The Houthi attacks have given him new arguments against Iran. The crisis is developing. An oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain was blown up on Nov 10. The Bahraini authorities have qualified the incident as a dangerous escalation and have blamed Iran for it.
The Arabs have promised to counteract. So, we may see a new page turned in the story of Arab-Iranian confrontation. The probability of a settlement is as low as never before – unlike the probability of a military conflict.
(1) Three significant events took place in Iran on Nov 4. On Nov 4, 1964, Imam Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled to Turkey. On Nov 4, 1978, the Shah regime fired at protesting students. On Nov 4, 1979, Iranian students captured the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
(2) On Oct 11, with consent of the Saudi authorities, a group of Russian surgeons arrived in Sanaa to help 75-year-old former President Saleh. According to some sources, the surgery took place at the Russian Embassy in Sanaa.
(3) Qaher-2m missiles were fired at the Saudi territory in late Mar 2017. Qaher-M2 is a Qaher variant with a longer claimed range of 400 km and a larger warhead (350 kg of explosive compared to 195 kg in Qaher-1). On May 26, the rebels unveiled al-Najim al-Thaqib (Piercing Star-2), an indigenously assembled 75 km tactical rocket system with a 75-kg warhead. (Michael Knights, Countering Iran’s Missile Proliferation in Yemen // The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 8, 2017).
(4) On Oct 6, the Americans approved a deal to supply the Saudis with THAADs worth $15 billion. Earlier, the Saudis asked the Americans to supply them with 44 THAADs, 360 THAAD interceptor missiles, 16 mobile fire-control and communication stations, and 7 THAAD radars. The Americans say that this will protect Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies from Iranian and other radical threats. The first foreign buyer of THAADs was the UAE authorities, who bought the systems in 2011.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau