Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Houthi rebels in Yemen have intensified attacks since late August with weaponized drones and ballistic missiles against civilian and military strategic targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
- On September 11, 2021, the Associated Press reported that the United States removed its most advanced missile defense system (THAAD) and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks.
- A combined ballistic missile and explosive drone attack on September 4 on the giant Aramco facility near Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia (and close to Bahrain) is an apparent Iranian warning against Bahrain’s rapprochement with Israel.
- On September 11, 2021, a ballistic missile and five explosive drones – believed to be Houthi – hit al-Mocha, a Red Sea port in Yemen, and destroyed humanitarian aid warehouses.
- Iran will try to rally the Resistance Camp to press for proactive and reactive political and military activity. Israel, the Arab countries, and the United States must prepare to deal with this trend.
Houthi rebels in Yemen have intensified attacks since late August with weaponized drones and ballistic missiles against Saudi targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. On August 29, the Iranian-supported rebels attacked the Saudi airbase of al-Anad, north of Aden, where Saudi-led coalition forces are based. In the attack, more than 30 soldiers were killed and more than 60 wounded. Two days later, a bomb-laden drone hit the Saudi airport in Abha, injuring eight people and damaging a civilian plane.2
On September 4, 2021, the Houthis simultaneously attacked several Saudi targets, including the city of Dammam in the eastern part of the kingdom not far from Bahrain. The target was the giant Aramco oil company’s Ras Tanura residential camp. Saudi air defense forces reported that they were able to intercept the long-range drones and ballistic missiles launched at the facility. However, fragments from the interception hit a civilian neighborhood, injuring two children. At the same time, Saudi targets were also attacked in Jazan and Najran in the south of the kingdom, and Asir. Dammam is approximately 1,200 km. from the launching sites in Yemen.
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sare’e declared,3 “In response to the aggression crimes against Yemen, Yemeni Armed Forces [Houthis] have carried out the ‘seventh deterrence balance’ operation by targeting vital installations and military bases [including airports] belonging to the Saudi enemy.” Sare’e enumerated:
- Aramco facilities in Ras al-Tanura in Dammam, eastern Saudi Arabia, were targeted with eight Sammad-3 drones and a ballistic Zulfiqar missile.
- Aramco’s facilities in Jeddah, Jizan, and Najran were bombed with five Badr [shorter range] ballistic missiles and two Sammad-3 drones. The operation has successfully achieved objectives.”
Five ballistic missiles and three armed Sammad-3 drones were launched in a long-range attack (1,200 km.)4 at the oil facilities in Ras-Tanura in the Dammam area. In addition to the wide use of Sammad-3 drones, a Dhu al-Fakar ballistic missile (named for the two-bladed sword [resembling scissors] used by Ali ibn Talib, Mohammed’s son-in-law) was launched. The Dhu al-Fakar is a Yemeni version of the Iranian Qiam missile, with a slightly longer range to reach the kingdom’s east. The Houthis also have a Samad-4 drone with a range of 2,000 km. to attack targets deeper in “enemy territory.” As a rule, all Houthi missile and drone launches are accompanied by chants of “Allahu Akbar, death to the United States, death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory for Islam.”
On September 11, Houthi rebels attacked the newly renovated and inaugurated port of Al-Mocha on the Red Sea coast with a ballistic missile and five drones.5 The attack damaged the port’s strategic infrastructure, as well as warehouses of international aid agencies, including humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people. No credit has been claimed yet for the attack. The United Arab Emirates uses the port to transport weapons to Yemen, and in the days leading up to the attack, vehicles were transferred to forces fighting the Houthis in the Hadhramaut region. The attack on the port appeared to signal to the UAE that its continued involvement in the fighting in Yemen, despite its reduction of forces, comes at a cost. Meanwhile, the Houthis continued their offensive in Marib province, west of Hadhramaut, in what they call their “clear victory” campaign (“Al-Nasr Al-Mubin”).
At the same time, Houthi media published details of the actions of the “Deterrence Equation” and the weaponry used. They emphasized, “There is not a single safe place in the depths of the kingdom against the strength of Yemen’s missiles and drones.” The attack on the strategic Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, in which half of Saudi Arabia’s production power was shut down on September 14, 2019, was the second act in the “deterrence equation” system. The latest series of attacks was the seventh operation against quality targets.
The attacks were covered extensively in the media of the “Resistance Camp” and in newspaper headlines in Iran, as well as media affiliated with Hizbullah.7 The reports emphasized the weakness of Saudi Arabia “stuck in the Yemeni quagmire” and the incompetence of Western interceptor weapons (Patriot batteries) against Houthi drones and ballistic missiles.
On the day of the attack near Dammam, and apparently not by accident, Iran strongly criticized Bahrain “for not learning the lessons of the past and continues to make the same mistakes until the suicide route it is taking…. It ties its fate to the fate of the illegal Zionist entity that is on its way to oblivion.” The Aramco facility at Ras Tanura (in the Dammam region) is only 50 miles from Manama, the capital of Bahrain. The target was chosen to signal to Bahrain that it was within range of Houthi missiles and drones. An editorial in Kayhan, a mouthpiece for Iran’s Supreme Leader, accused the royal family (“the Pirates of Manama”) of treason and “imprisonment and torture and killing innocent Bahraini civilians.” The Iranian publication added that, just a few days ago, Bahrain inaugurated – “contrary to the opinion of the proud people of Bahrain – an Israeli embassy in Manama, ignoring the protests of thousands of Bahrainis who showed solidarity with Palestine….On the same day, Bahrain also inaugurated an embassy in Israel.8
At the Height of the Attacks, the U.S. Removes Advanced Defense Systems
At the same time as the increased ballistic missile and drone attacks, the Associated Press reported, and Pentagon officials confirmed, that the United States had re-deployed (outside of Saudi Arabia) the advanced Patriot missile batteries stationed at the Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.10 Precisely after the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the intensification of the crisis in the nuclear talks in Vienna, the Gulf States’ concerns about Iran and their questions reflect increasing doubts about America’s willingness to stand by them in the event of an Iranian attack. The presence of U.S. air defense components at the base increased after the Houthi-Iranian missile attack on the strategic oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby tried to reassure Gulf States that, despite the redeployment of air defense systems, the U.S. commitment to its Middle East allies remained “deep and broad.” His reassurance did little to allay their concern. After the attacks on strategic targets, Iran and the Houthis claimed that U.S. defense systems in Saudi Arabia are ineffective and could not intercept drones and ballistic missiles.
Iran continues to equip and assist the Houthis in building an air wing that combines ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, rockets, and attack drones, alongside support for the local production of additional weapons. Most of the finished systems held by the Houthis originated in Iran. At the same time, Iran is working vigorously to help the Houthis establish an independent production line based on Iranian knowledge so that they do not depend only on finished Iranian systems that Iran manages to smuggle into Yemen. In March 2021, the Houthis presented a wide range of weapons, including drones, missiles, and rockets of various types, mortars, anti-tank guided munitions (ATGMs), sniper rifles, naval mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and explosively formed penetrators (EFPs).11
Through this policy, Iran has succeeded in establishing an effective and deterrent military force in Yemen against Saudi Arabia, its archrival, and even the other Gulf States. The Houthis also launched drones and missiles at the United Arab Emirates. In 2018, a Sammad-3 drone attacked the Dubai airbase, and in 2017, the Houthis claimed they fired a missile at the Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi,12 against the background of the UAE’s involvement in the war in Yemen. (The UAE denied the attack.)
Iran has turned Yemen into its testing range and its biggest operational “hub of knowledge.” The repeated Houthi airstrikes on targets deep in Saudi Arabia (strategic infrastructure, airports, oil facilities, government institutions, etc.), as well as ground battles in various areas of Yemen against the Saudi coalition, provide Iran with extensive knowledge and operational experience in the use of various weapons. In some cases, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s missile arm, as well as members of Lebanese Hizbullah, are involved in operating the Houthis’ systems and in training.
Iran is also closely monitoring the operation of Saudi air defense systems supplied by the United States, especially the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries, which can intercept ballistic missiles at a higher altitude than the Patriot missiles.
At the center of the effort to develop the missile and drone capabilities of the “Resistance Camp” stands Unit 340 of the Quds Force. Their main effort is to extend the range of operations, improve accuracy, and increase the destructive effect in the target area. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed that the Kashan base north of the city of Isfahan is where Iran trains groups and militias to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). “The base is the cornerstone of the Iranian air terror export in the region. Recently, the Iranians began transferring knowledge for the production of UAVs to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).”13 Gantz warned that UAVs and drones are similar to ballistic missiles and can cross thousands of kilometers from Yemen. The Houthis have scores of advanced UAVs that have carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks.
Iranian proxies are also trained to operate shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) and other air defense systems. On September 13, the Houthis claimed they shot down a Chinese-made Wing Loong-2 spy drone in Saada province.14 In mid-August and on June 20, the Houthis claimed they intercepted a U.S.-built ScanEagle spy drone flying over Marib province with a “domestically-developed surface-to-air missile.”15
The Quds Force’s activity is carried out through instructors in various areas and visits by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad operatives in Iran to study the technology and means of production, and to coordinate the smuggling of components for the construction of heavy rockets, missiles, and other weapons such as anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles, and mortars to the conflict zones, including the Gaza Strip. Houthi and terrorist organizations are managing to produce heavier rockets with longer ranges, sometimes not following exact Iranian missiles/rocket designs, but via self-production based on Iranian-provided technological knowledge.
Iran is gaining extensive experience in operating various weapons systems in the diverse arenas of the Resistance Camp, such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and tries to bring these capabilities to the fore in the rounds of fighting between the Palestinian terrorist organizations and Israel in Gaza, as well as in Iraq against American forces. During the May 2021 war in Gaza, several attempts were made by the terrorist organizations to launch Iranian-designed drones into Israeli territory. Iran is constantly working to equip all elements of the Resistance Camp with asymmetrical capabilities capable of striking deep into Israeli territory and the lands of its regional rivals, mainly in the Gulf and Iraq. (On September 11, a weaponized drone, probably launched by pro-Iranian Shiite militias, attacked near a U.S. base at Erbil International Airport.) The drone was shot down by a coalition fighter jet.16
In recent years, Iran has been trying to increase the linkage and fine-tune the coordination between the various components of the Resistance Camp and improve their military-operational capabilities. According to Iran, the camp will eventually be more significant than its components and will be able, under Iranian leadership, to act as one entity during a confrontation with Israel, the United States, or an Arab coalition, whenever Iran decides to do so. The experience accumulated by the militias of the resistance front in the operation of the weapons systems, while producing lessons and mutual analysis with Iran and Hizbullah, may be applicable in air and maritime combat (attacking gas rigs, ships) and ground fighting. During the May 2021 Gaza war, a joint military command comprising the terrorist organizations Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah worked together in Beirut.17
So far, Iran has not paid any price for actions carried out by its proxies. Even for the malicious actions Iran carries out on its own, such as hijacking or damaging civilian vessels in the Persian Gulf, it does not pay a price. The deterrence capability of Iran’s foes is eroding, which increases Iran’s prowess. Iran’s new government promises (mainly the foreign minister, who benefits from his ties with the IRGC Quds Force and has promised to combine foreign policy with activity on the ground) to lead a more defiant regional international policy when it comes to encouraging its proxies to work against their adversaries.
In view of this, it is possible that Israel, together with the bloc of Arab countries with which it has signed peace treaties, and Saudi Arabia should see and manage the war-between-wars campaign not only against Iran but also against the Resistance Camp as a collective and not wait for any surprises. The Iranian move to apply a common political-military perspective to various events (e.g., the issue of the escape of Palestinian prisoners, Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, the war in Yemen, peace accords) to the Resistance Camp will continue. The escape of six prisoners from an Israeli prison in September gave Iran an opportunity to present Israel as weak in a caricature in Tasnim (affiliated with the IRGC).18
As before, Iran will try to exploit such events to rally the Resistance Camp to press for proactive and reactive political and military activity. Israel, the Arab countries, and the United States must prepare to deal with this trend.
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5 Yemen gov’t says Houthis hit Red Sea aid port | Houthis News | Al Jazeera