By Track Persia
December 31, 2021
Iran’s proxy Houthis militant group in Yemen are orchestrating an increasingly intense irregular warfare campaign against Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf using sophisticated cruise and ballistic missiles, UAVs, and other stand-off weapons.
Over the past few months, the Iranian regime has increasingly resorted to irregular warfare as an important means of expanding its influence. This is reflected in Iran indirect operations through partners and proxies against its adversaries. The reason why Iran has resorted to this unconventional warfare is that it unlike the United States and other Iranian adversaries—including Saudi Arabia and Israel, does not enjoy a substantial advantage military power as its conventional ground, air and maritime capabilities lag well behind these states. One main example is a significant portion of Iran’s ageing air force inventory consists of U.S.-supplied aircraft that predates the 1979 revolution.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force has provided the Houthis with training and a growing arsenal of sophisticated weapons and technology for anti-tank guided missiles, sea mines, explosive-laden UAVs, ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned maritime vehicles (UMVs), and other weapons and systems. Subsequently, the military capabilities of the Houthis have significantly improved, thanks to the Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Additionally, in this period, the Iranian proxy the Houthi militant group in Yemen have more than doubled its attacks against the Saudi Kingdom. According to the Washington-based CSIS think tank as the Houthis’ attacks against Saudi Arabia reached 78 a month, in total 702 over the first nine months of 2021. While during the same period in 2020, the group’s monthly attacks against the kingdom were 38.
The Houthis’ main targets
The increased Iran-backed Houthis’ attacks against the Saudi Arabic since 2016, which has reached so far 4100 reflect the extent of the proxy war that the Iranian regime has developed in this period. One of the prime targets for the Houthis has been maritime attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf where they have reached 24 attacks. between January 2017 and June 2021, the Houthis have mainly used drones in these attacks. Despite these attacks which the Houthis have fired drones from around Yemeni ports, the attacks did not disrupt oil shipping or production, they by large reflect a worrying picture of destabilising the oil shipping and production of Arab states in the Gulf region.
Iranian-linked groups in other parts of the Middle East have conducted a substantial number of stand-off attacks against Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian territory; against U.S. forces in Iraq. The Quds Force has also provided aid to such groups as the Houthis in Yemen, Lebanese Hezbollah, Shia militias in Syria, the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) in Iraq, local militias in Afghanistan, and groups from Pakistan, Palestinian territory, and other locations.
Despite the threats the Houthis pose to the Gulf states, in particular, their Saudi Arabia the arch-enemy and their sponsor the Iranian regime, the United States under President Biden administration removed many of its Patriot missile batteries from the Middle East in early this year on the pretext that the main goal of this administration is to confront China and Russia.
The Pentagon is pulling approximately eight Patriot antimissile batteries from countries including Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, according to American officials who spoke to The Wall Street Journal. Another antimissile system known as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad system, is being withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, and jet fighter squadrons assigned to the region are being reduced, those officials said.
The growing Houthis’ attacks?
One of the prime goals behind the Houthis’ recent offensives is to seize Marib, an economically and politically important Yemeni province in 2021. Marib would provide the Houthis near-total control of northern Yemen, including key oil and gas infrastructure, and improve its political negotiating position. If the Houthis gain control of the region, they will be able to shift their focus toward the Gulf of Aden and seek to control the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The Houthis seek the establishment of a theocratic Yemen under Houthi leadership.
Additional, the relatively low-cost support from Iran’s IRGC and the Lebanese Hezbollah (another Iran’s proxy) makes the Houthi attacks on the Saudi kingdom so effective. It appears that producing the weapons that the Houthis are using to attack Saudi Arabia is very cheap for the Iranian regime and the Houthi militants. These weapons include ballistic and cruise missiles and, mainly unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which are often used against Saudi civilian infrastructure. More recently drones have become the prime weapon the Houthis have found more effective in targeting Saudi Arabia, as other Iran’s proxies in the region such as the Shiite militias in Iraq where drones have been increasingly used by their adversaries, a recent prime example is the assassination attempt against Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Similarly, the Houthis found that using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against the Saudi Kingdom can cause great damage to civilian infrastructures, such as airports despite these weapons do not cause significant physical damage because the system used are relatively low-tech. therefore they in November 2021, fired over a dozen UAVs with explosives at several Saudi cities, including oil refineries in Jeddah. Subsequently, the Saudi kingdom responded by targeting Houthi weapons depots, air defence systems, and UAV infrastructure in Yemen.
For the Iranian regime, irregular warfare through proxies is the most convenient and effective way to fight, in particular, if this warfare will not risk escalation to conventional war. Most importantly, the Quds Force has considerable experience in waging irregular warfare, with a long history of supporting non-state actors throughout the Middle East.
In September 2021, the Houthis fired a missile targeting Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, injuring two children and damaging several homes. In March 2021, Houthi militants launched multiple UAVs and missiles at the Saudi southern city of Jazan, striking a facility of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco . Saudi Arabia’s military has also intercepted thousands of Houthi ballistic and cruise missiles, UAVs, and other stand-off weapons.
Given that Houthis and Iran have demonstrated a persistent ability to threaten Saudi Arabia and other regional countries, the latter should be provided additional security assistance by the United States and its partners to defend itself from the Houthis’ attacks such as those target civilians and infrastructure, in addition to the Iranian actions in Yemen.
One form of this support can be conducted through a more aggressive campaign to publicly highlight Iranian and Houthi actions aiming to destabilise the regional states, in particular Saudi Arabia.
Similarly, the Iranian regime’s support for the Houthis could be more exposed to the public to press the international community such as the United Nations to condemn Iranian intervention in the Saudi-Yemeni conflict and demand that the Houthis renounce the Iranian support to them as part of starting peace talks.
Finally, the Saudi Kingdom should be supported by increasing efforts against Iranian-linked weapon smuggling to Yemen. The United States and its partners should devote additional resources to collect and analyze intelligence on Iranian smuggling routes, as well as to conduct maritime and air patrols to interdict weapons shipments to the Houthis.