The Proxy War Shaping the Middle East


A member of a special force loyal to the Houthi rebels holds an RPG launcher. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has called a recent missile launch that targeted Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, an “act of war.” Following this brutal attack, Saudi Arabia is now accusing Iran of supplying missiles to Shi’ite “Houthi” rebels inside Yemen. But how and why is this happening? And could pursuing such conflict mean a larger problem for Saudi Arabia and its allies in the long run? The answer might lie in the origins of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Until recently, Yemen had long been inside Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. However, with the recent Houthi insurgency in Yemen, Iran began to influence Yemeni rebel activity more strongly. The Saudis have accused Iran of supporting Houthi efforts in Yemen with money, training, and weapons. Moreover, a coup d’etat in Yemen effectively removed the then-government from power in 2014. Saudis observed this as an effort by the Iranians to gain further influence within Yemen. In early 2015, Saudi Arabia responded by joining a coalition of nations that together launched airstrikes against the Saada region of Yemen, where Houthi rebels had their strongest foothold.

As things stand now, Houthis have seized and occupied Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, since September 2014. The aforementioned Saudi coalition has been battling these rebels on behalf of Yemen’s legitimate and internationally recognized government. Yemen is simultaneously facing a humanitarian catastrophe which has left 18 million people in need immediate assistance and created the largest food security emergency in the world.

Recently, Saudi Arabia claimed that a missile with Iranian markings was seen being launched by Houthi rebels against Riyadh. Iran still denies any supply of weaponry to the rebels. Since then, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture has released information exposing alleged parts of the Houthis’ Iranian ballistic missile. Saudi officials claim a number of the missile’s characteristics match those of Iranian Qiam missiles and, as such, that they are proof of Iranian involvement in Houthi activity.

Saudi Arabia has responded to the Houthis’ aggression by classifying it as an Iranian act of war. They appear to be willing and ready for a further escalation of the conflict, which has only intensified in recent weeks. These missiles are not the only weapons that Iran has been accused of sending to Yemen. The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of transferring weaponry into Yemen. The U.S. claims that Iran has smuggled thousands of Kalashnikov assault rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles and a number of other weapons. Seized Houthi drones used to attack Saudi Arabia were recently examined by United Arab Emirates forces and found to share near-identical design and structural characteristics to Iranian drones.

However, the question of how exactly Iran would get missiles into Yemen remains. The Saudi military has long alleged that Iran smuggles weapons into Yemeni territory via boats and trucks with false bottoms in order to ferry weapons. For the Houthis, this means – if smuggled seamlessly – an uninterrupted supply of weaponry for their rebellious efforts. This greatly alarms Saudi Arabia, as this could both transfer Yemen into Iran’s sphere of influence and transform the nation into a rogue state. This would only bring further instability to the Middle East.

With more U.S. support, Saudi Arabia could likely eliminate large portions of the Houthi faction and thus end Iran’s involvement in rebel efforts in Yemen. However, this does not guarantee an end to the Saudi-Iran conflict itself, which has now crossed over into Iraq and Lebanon. U.S. mediation favoring Saudis could, in fact, provoke Iran further. Regardless, a serious military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran remains likely. Unfortunately, this presents the possibility of conflict spilling over and extending beyond Yemen; a conflict both the Saudis and the Iranians would prefer stayed in proxy form.

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