For the past three years, Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen has been overshadowed in Western policy circles by the fight against the Islamic State. Now that the dust is settling in Iraq and the last vestiges of the hyper-radical Islamic movement seem to be living on borrowed time, attention is once again thrust back onto the two largest powers in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia and Iran. Following the successful interception of a ballistic missile targeting King Khalid International airport in Riyadh, the Saudi response in Yemen, which has become the locus for the power struggle, has been swift and decisive with a near-total blockade of the country and increased missile barrages on Sanaa. Some responses to this seemingly heavy-handed approach by the Saudis are predicated on arguments of proportionality and human rights concerns, but this ignores the regional dynamic and political implications of the conflict.
Starting with an analysis of the missile itself, the general consensus seems to indicate that it was supplied to the Houthis by the Iranians (despite denial from Tehran). The closest estimates to the specific type of missile appear to indicate that an Iranian Qiam-1, a liquid fueled IRBM with a CEP of around 500 meters—suitable for a relatively accurate strike on large-area targets such as airports or military bases—was launched from the northern part of Yemen and subsequently confirmed by the Houthi government after it had been shot down. This represents an unprecedented development in the ability of the Houthi rebels to project force out of Yemen and into Saudi Arabia, which has been struggling to put down the insurgency even with its coordinated air and ground strikes involving fellow GCC states.
The actual deployment of a ballistic missile by Houthi rebels suggests an increasing presence of technical and material support from Iranian special forces that have been able to evade Saudi and allied efforts aimed at crippling the insurgency. While most analysts agree that direct Iranian support to the Shia insurgency is limited to technical and advisory roles (a 2016 report by the Conflict Armament Research group established that interdictions of three vessels bound for Somalia and Yemen contained significant small arms shipments originating from Iran), the assembly, deployment, and launch of a ballistic missile comes as an unwelcome surprise to Riyadh, serving as further evidence that Saudi Arabia is fighting an uphill battle in the proxy war with Iran.
While smuggling in an entire missile past the GCC blockade may be next to impossible, advances in Iranian ballistic missile technology, and missile testing which has gone unfettered in the country for several years, could belie a level of expertise which would permit a piecemeal building of ballistic missiles by smuggling disassembled fuselages and other components, before performing a complete assembly in Yemen with the aid of Iranian special forces already present on the ground.
The political implications from the conflict in Yemen strongly favor Iran’s strategic goals of destabilizing the region by casting doubts on the US and GCC security umbrella, further expanding their influence by supporting Shia insurgencies and governments across the region, and forcing the continued commitment of Western powers into situations which have high risk and low rewards. Combined with the recent corruption purges in Saudi Arabia, a crackdown on Kurdish independence movements, and an increased paramilitary and governmental presence in Iraq, the Yemeni crisis represents Iran’s most successful prospect. While the nature of the war in Yemen accommodates mutual enemies to both Riyadh and Tehran, such as AQAP, the fallout from a festering presence of terrorist organizations presents a greater threat and demands more immediate attention from the Saudis than from the Iranians.
In the West, responses to the escalating violence in Yemen have been relaxed if not altogether ignored. Aside from American material and moral support of the Saudi coalition, talks in Washington of pursuing a more aggressive stance in the region, akin to past conflicts begun under the purview of the AUMF, is a politically taxing and inexpedient behemoth to a Congress embroiled in domestic political intrigue that is beholden to a war-weary American public. In light of the worsening cholera epidemic and famine ravaging Yemen, Western overtures of increased military support are likely to draw sharp rebukes from domestic populations if they are not coupled with humanitarian aid. This only plays into Iran’s hands and furthers their interests in the region. Axiomatically, the proxy war in Yemen follows the same tenets of guerrilla warfare that have brought down many stronger adversaries in times past: Iran and the Houthis need not win against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—they only need to ensure that their opponents lose.