Continued tensions between the United States and Iran have begun having second order effects on the war in Yemen. The war was, somewhat wrongfully, originally characterized as a proxy war with Iran, but the conflict is now more at risk of being driven in that direction than it ever has been before. While many recent Houthi attacks and security incidents in Yemen have coincided with the ongoing tensions, responding to them simply through the lens of Iranian puppeteering risks further escalation and foreign entanglement in Yemen that could make the “proxy war” description far more apt and any political solution even more elusive. The escalation of Houthi attacks does, however, indicate increased operational capabilities and the group’s ability to sustain prolonged offensives. However, the Houthi’s political goals remain their own.
Among the most notable recent developments directly linked to actors in Yemen have been the Houthi’s downing of a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper, a cruise missile attack on Abha Airport and other Saudi infrastructure, and sporadic drone attacks. The level of Iranian involvement in the planning and execution of these attacks is still up for debate, but each demonstrates an increasing level of sophistication as well as the group’s ability to sustain a campaign of military operations against Saudi Arabia.
These attacks follow a relatively steady trend in terms of target selection progression and the evolution of planning and tactics that has been evident over the past year or more. The Houthis have fired countless ballistic missiles at Saudi infrastructure over the past several years, with varying degrees of success, and their use of drones has been well documented for quite some time. The first attack on Abha airport on June 12, however, was allegedly a cruise missile, likely the Iranian Soumar—a modified version of the Russian Kh-55 air-launched cruise missile (al Jazeera, June 12). The attack marked only the second known time the Houthis have used a cruise missile, the first being the attempted strike on a nuclear plant in the UAE (Al-Arabiya, December 3, 2017). Similarly, the downing of the Reaper on June 6 demonstrates air defense capabilities generally above what has been seen during the war. MQ-9’s fly at a much higher altitude than the other aircraft that the Houthis have successfully shot down in the past (CENTCOM, June 16). The combination of tactics illustrates the variety of tools and methods the Houthis can use to persistently strike Saudi Arabia.
The attacks show an increased level of sophistication. The frequency at which the attacks have occurred recently—and while alarming given the timing—are not entirely unprecedented as their attacks have come in similar waves in the past and in direct response to Saudi war efforts and developments surrounding the embattled port city of Hodeidah. Similarly, their selection of targets is not entirely new and should not be viewed as unique to Iran’s agenda. For instance, the Houthis have previously attempted to target airports—including King Khaled International in Riyadh—and critical infrastructure such as the desalination plant in Jazan, which has been the most targeted location in terms of Houthi missile attacks (al Jazeera, November 5 2017). The Houthi’s intention of striking such targets is to continue pressuring the country and demonstrate the economic and human costs Saudi Arabia faces in hopes of pushing the country to realize how untenable it is to continue the war.
At present, there is no denying that Iran has provided material and technical support to the Houthis and that improved capabilities are linked to Iranian technology, but it remains a misnomer to label Yemen as a full-scale proxy war and few analysts believe Iran has actually been pulling the Houthi’s strings. The uptick in attacks might be in response to stalling peace efforts and continued clashes in Hodeidah throughout May and June, as well as tit-for-tat operations by Saudi Arabia and its allies elsewhere in Yemen, as stated by Houthi officials as the reason for the attacks (Al-Arabiya, June 21). The escalation could also easily be the group’s own decision to exploit the ongoing tensions by sending a warning that further foreign involvement in the region risks retribution and a broader, more detrimental conflict for all parties, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In fact, the UAE has reportedly begun withdrawing a substantial number of troops and military equipment from Yemen, potentially to begin eliminating itself from the Yemen equation while reinforcing its presence of troops at home.
It is easy to see how recent events viewed in the context of the attacks on the tankers in the Gulf of Oman and Iran’s downing of a U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone near its coastline might paint a different picture of the Houthi’s connection to Iran (CENTCOM, June 20). However, it is important to maintain a clear perspective on the Houthi’s local agenda and goals. There is a real risk that these attacks, if viewed solely as being directed by Tehran, will alter the strategic calculus of the Saudi coalition and the United States and lead to a broader escalation or military miscalculation in Yemen.
Currently, the Houthis are still highly unlikely to take any direction from Tehran that does not benefit their interests or fit in line with their previous tactics. The escalating clashes around Hodeidah and elsewhere that have occurred concurrently to the rise in tensions cannot reasonably be reduced to Iranian involvement, as some have been initiated by Saudi forces. If the ongoing tensions lead U.S. policymakers to misinterpret Iran’s influence over the Houthis and respond militarily in Yemen, the most likely risk is that Iran will double down on its support to the group and attempt to influence their decision making. There is no significant evidence to prove Tehran has been successful at directing the Houthis in the past. Doubling down, however, will further exacerbate the war in Yemen and make the conflict even more intractable. A strike on Iran—which no longer appears imminent given President Trump’s cancellation of alleged plans to hit targets inside the country—would be more likely to manifest attacks by proxies in other countries that Iran has tighter control over as opposed to the Houthis (Asharq Al Aswat, June 21).
What is more likely than a strike against Iran is a U.S. response vis a vis the Houthis due to the perception that Tehran has directed the escalation of attacks. The response could come either through direct action or through added support to Saudi Arabia. An attack on the Houthis or bolstered support for the Kingdom would harden its position against the United States and dry up the group’s previously stated willingness to engage with U.S. policymakers (While the Houthis might not take field-level directions from Tehran at their own expense, they would undoubtedly be accepting of an increase in weapons and technology transfers spurred by such action. An influx of weapons would assuredly be used to further the group’s goal of striking Saudi Arabia, which in turn punishes the United States and continues the cycle.
Most observers agree that there is currently no viable military solution in Yemen that would not wreak further havoc on a country already deemed the most significant humanitarian disaster in the world today. The Houthis have benefitted from Iranian weapons, but even if Tehran ceased shipments today they could sustain the conflict for the foreseeable future with what remains in their stockpile. It is unlikely that the U.S. or Saudi coalition can force an end to Iran’s material support through military or security operations. The Houthi’s ties with Iran have always seemingly been more about sustaining its military operations to achieve the group’s own political goals rather than fulfilling Iran’s agenda. The most viable way to prevent a deeper Iranian connection is through a political solution that ends in the Houthi’s military needs. As such, it is critical that U.S.-Iran tensions do not overshadow the unique local dynamics of the conflict and push the conflict into deeper territory and the Houthis closer to Iran. Instead, it is necessary to deescalate in the region and continue efforts to reach a political solution.