Houthi missile attack ratchets up Saudi-Iranian tensions

'Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps,' Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir

Dangerous escalation. A video grab shows what is purported to be the launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, on November 4. (Reuters)

2017/11/12 Issue: 131 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Mohammed Alkhereiji

London- Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz blaming Tehran over the recent ballistic missile fired at Riyadh by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

In a telephone call with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Crown Prince Mohammed accused Iran of direct military aggression against Saudi Arabia.

“The involvement of the Iranian regime in supplying its affiliated Houthi militias with missiles is a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime and could be con­sidered an act of war against the kingdom,” the crown prince said in a report by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi air defences intercepted a ballistic missile fired Novem­ber 4 from Houthi-controlled ar­eas of Yemen. The missile was de­stroyed near what is believed to be its intended target, King Khalid International Airport, on Riyadh’s northern outskirts.

The Houthis also threatened to attack Saudi Arabia and the Unit­ed Arab Emirates. “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,” the Houthi rebels’ political office said in a statement.

A report in the Iranian hard-line daily Kayhan suggested that the Tehran-sponsored Yemeni militia would target other Saudi cities or “change the direction of their missiles to the shiny and brittle port of Dubai.”

The White House lauded the kingdom for exposing Iran’s sup­port for the Houthi militia and called on the United Nations to consider evidence of Iran’s sup­port for the rebel group. Iran’s arming of the militia in Yemen is well-documented, however.

A 2015 UN report stated that Iran’s arming of Houthi rebels dates to 2009, the early years of their insurgency. The report, by a panel of experts and presented to the UN Security Council, included findings of an investigation into the 2013 seizure by Yemeni au­thorities of an Iranian ship, the Jihan, which was found carrying weapons.

The information in the report “suggests that the Jihan case fol­lows a pattern of arms shipments to Yemen by sea that can be traced back to at least 2009,” said the document seen by Agence France-Presse.

A Reuters report last March said that Iranian Major-General Qas­sem Soleimani, leader of al-Quds Force, the external arm of the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), met with top Iranian mili­tary officials to find ways to em­power rebels in Yemen.

The report revealed that the IRGC had increased arms and lo­gistics support to the militia in a strategy that mirrors its support for its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah during the war in Syria.

“At this meeting, they agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and finan­cial support,” an Iranian official told Reuters, adding that “Yemen is where the real proxy war is go­ing on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the bal­ance of power in the Middle East.”

In an interview with CNN, Sau­di Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterated the kingdom’s position on Iran’s support for the militia in Yemen. “We see this as an act of war,” he said.

“Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps,” Jubeir said, citing Article 51 of the UN Char­ter, which outlines conditions in which a country can engage in self-defence.

“It was an Iranian missile, launched by Hezbollah, from ter­ritory occupied by the Houthis in Yemen,” he added.

Gulf analysts said the kingdom has several options for how to move forward.

Writing in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdulrah­man al-Rashed, the former gen­eral manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, said Iran was forcing its rivals to either direct confronta­tion with the Iranian regime or the creation and support of re­gional forces for a proxy war with Iran.

The likelihood of a direct con­frontation is slim, said Rashed, except in the case of self-defence stemming from a direct attack. He added that the second option of supporting proxy groups in neigh­bouring countries would be more viable.

A Saudi-led military coalition in support of the internation­ally recognised government has been at war with the Iran-backed Houthis for more than two years. The failed missile strike on Ri­yadh led to the Saudi-led coalition temporarily closing all of Yemen’s land and sea border crossings and airports. Riyadh offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of 40 wanted individuals from the Houthi movement.

Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.

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