After Sunday’s drone and missile attacks against oil facilities and other targets in Saudi Arabia, the United States expressed alarm at the ‘genuine security threats’ the Saudis are facing from Yemeni-based and Iranian supported Houthi rebels. Not to sound facetious, but I honestly do not understand why the Biden administration is just now waking up to the realization that the Houthi rebels pose a danger to Saudi Arabian territory and economic interests. This past weekend saw Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export terminal at the port of Ras Tanura targeted. No damage was caused to the terminal, but fragments from an exploding ballistic missile did fall on the nearby ARAMCO facility.
Sunday was not the first time that the Houthis launched drone and missile attacks against economic targets inside of the Kingdom. The attack against the Abqaiq facility in 2019 caused considerable damage and affected Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The most recent attacks are not expected to have an effect on either production, or oil prices beyond today. Yet the attacks have helped to demonstrate how complicated ending the civil war in Yemen will be. The Houthis are clearly not prepared to talk peace right now, as this weekend revealed.
The White House has apparently noticed this, and the Biden administration sounds downright miffed. “We continue to be alarmed by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a press conference.
Well, to be fair, its probably not entirely the Houthis decision whether or not they come to the peace table. Tehran has reestablished its influence with the Yemeni-based group and is calling the shots once again. The US has not helped the prospects of ending the war in Yemen much lately either. Last month the Biden administration removed US support for Saudi military operations inside of Yemen. Though a bit naïve, the move was an act of good faith. Unfortunately, it has had almost the exact opposite effect and is enticing the Houthis to resume attacks on the economic infrastructure of Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration will eventually learn how to navigate the Yemen quagmire, but it is coming at a cost.
In the last twenty-four hours signs have appeared indicating Iran could potentially be planning a military move somewhere in the Persian Gulf region. The indicators started coming to the surface shortly after it was revealed that a US Navy warship seized a major shipment of Iranian arms headed to the Houthi rebels in Yemen last week. Since then, US military and intelligence officials have been closely analyzing the information coming out of the region and are concluding that Iranian action is possible.
It appears that Iran is using the chaos in Iraq as a cover to secretly move additional short-range ballistic missiles into the country. From points just outside of Baghdad these missiles can be launched against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively. The appearance of missiles in Iraq is not a new development. US intelligence has been warning of their presence since last year, and Israel launched airstrikes to destroy the hidden weaponry. The threat from the short range ballistic missiles is increasing as their numbers have been increasing lately.
Earlier in the week, the Trump administration has hinted that it could be sending additional troops to the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iran continue to rise. The size and make up of the new deployment remains to be seen, however, as the week has gone on, it seems certain that new US forces will begin moving to the Gulf in a matter of days in an attempt to strengthen US military options in the region should Iran decide to move.
The Iranians appear to be reacting to the prospect of more US forces in the area. According to reports from media sources, and from inside of the Pentagon, Iran has started moving additional air defense units to Bushehr, site of its sole nuclear reactor, and also the location where a new reactor is under construction. Obviously, the air defenses are being strengthened there to deter the US from launching air and cruise missile strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to a partial ceasefire in its conflict in Yemen. The ceasefire will take effect in four regions of the war-torn country, including the area around San’a, Yemen’s capital city. If the ceasefire is successful, it will be expanded to other parts of Yemen. The somewhat unexpected move by Riyadh comes in response to Houthi forces declaring a unilateral ceasefire last week. Following the 14 September attacks against Saudi oil facilities, Houthi leaders claimed responsibility. This claim was seen as a move to obscure Iran’s role in the attack and was dismissed by Saudi, US, and European military officers and diplomats. Internally, however, the claim caused a rupture between Houthis who want to cool ties with Iran, and those who want to strengthen the relationship. Some Houthi leaders have even gone as far as to warn Riyadh about Iran’s intention to launch follow-up strikes against targets in Saudi territory.
The ceasefire, should it hold, gives Saudi Arabia’s military a period of time to catch its breath. Operations in Yemen have taken a toll on Saudi forces, especially the Royal Saudi Air Force. Given the direction relations with Iran are going in, it’s very possible the RSAF will be needed soon. At present, the air force’s combat readiness is marginal following four years of conflict in Yemen. Saudi air crews, and commanders need to relearn the tenets of modern air warfare in order to be of use in the coming weeks and months. Even if the Saudis decide not to retaliate militarily against Iran, there’s a strong likelihood that Tehran will launch another overt attack against Saudi Arabia at some point in the future.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacked an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia today. Saudi officials confirm a projectile struck an arrivals terminal at Abha International Airport near the city of Khamis Mushait. Houthi officials wasted no time in claiming responsibility for the attack with a spokesman for the rebel group saying a cruise missile was launched at the airport’s control tower. Saudi officials have said nothing about damage to the control tower, however, there were two dozen or so travelers wounded by the projectile that hit the terminal. The Houthis also claimed that this attack was a response to “Saudi Aggression” in Yemen, though no details were given beyond that.
Houthi attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia have ramped up in recent weeks. Last month, Houthi drones attacked a pair of pumping facilities along a Saudi pipeline, forcing Riyadh to close the pipeline for a short time. Also in May, Saudi forces shot down a Houthi drone that targeted Jizan airport near the Yemeni border. This month has not been any quieter. On Sunday, rebel drones struck a Saudi drone facility at another airport near the Saudi-Yemen border. On the following day, Saudi air defense forces intercepted two drones as they approached Khamis Mushait, where King Khalid Air Base, a major Royal Saudi Air Force installation is also located.
As tensions between the United States and Iran have drawn down recently, Houthi activity is on the rise in Yemen. Iran is likely pressuring the Houthis to continue their attacks on targets in Saudi territory in the hopes it will shift international attention away from the war of words now taking place between Iran and the United States. Despite its efforts, Iran has had little success persuading the Trump administration to roll back the sanctions now in place. Other attempts to enlist Europe’s help in the matter have so far brought no success.
Tehran’s apparent support for Thursday’s breakthrough in UN-sponsored Yemeni peace talks raises questions about the future of Iran’s involvement in the conflict. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels have agreed to end fighting in and around the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. The Iranian foreign ministry called the ceasefire ‘promising’ and hopes that negotiations scheduled for January will bring forth a final agreement. The fact that the peace talks have made progress is surprising. For most of the four-year old conflict neither side has shown much enthusiasm for a brokered-settlement. Over the last four months that attitude has vanished, in large part due to increasing US-led international pressure on the involved parties to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Whether or not Iran’s support is sincere or purely cosmetic remains to be seen. The progress made in the peace talks, as well as Iran’s public praise for it, indicates there could be a shift in Iran’s Yemen strategy afoot. Tehran’s funding, and material support of the Houthi rebels has been vital to keeping them in the fight for this long. It is a marriage of convenience between the two more than anything else. The relationship between Iran and the Houthis is not deep. There are no historical ties that compel Tehran to support the movement. Iran’s main purpose for investing itself in the Yemeni War was to establish a firm foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, and threaten Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier, along with the vital Red Sea shipping routes. A Houthi victory would ultimately have led to the establishment of a pro-Iranian government in Yemen, and the end result would be a major victory for Tehran in the Great Game being played out between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region.
Unfortunately, the conflict has not gone in Iran’s favor. Saudi-led intervention has made a Houthi victory more unlikely as time goes on. Yemen has become a nation-state besieged by war, and enduring an almost unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Continued backing of the Houthis in the future appears more of a crapshoot for Iran, especially in light of the other major issues the Iranian government is facing both at home and abroad. The chance of a more permanent ceasefire, or peace agreement in the near future provides Iran with an opportunity to walk away from Yemen with a respectable PR victory (provided support for the UN-sponsored talks continues) and its prestige still relatively intact.
Yemen does not hold the same significance for Iran that it did four years ago. Tehran has bigger problems to contend with. Saudi Arabia, despite the recent Khashoggi incident, has taken a hard stand against further Iranian expansion in and around the kingdom. The close relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family has enticed Riyadh to push back against Iranian adventurism, hence Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to end its intervention in Yemen.
Then there is the United States. Iran is dealing with a full court press by the Trump administration to isolate Iran from the global community. To the surprise of many Iranian leaders, the US efforts have been quite successful so far, and show no signs of easing in the future. So, it would make sense for Iran to circle its wagons and hunker down to endure the next wave of US pressure instead of overextending itself in near-hopeless foreign adventures.