Analysis: Reported link between Houthi and Iranian ballistic missiles

On November 30, Reuters cited select quotes from a confidential UN sanctions report noting shared “design characteristics” between a projectile Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired at Riyadh in early November and an Iranian short-range ballistic missile (SBRM). Known as the Burkan-2H in the Houthi arsenal and the Qiam-1 in the Iranian arsenal, the claim, if substantiated through a more public distribution of the UN report and/or official US confirmation, would be the latest indication of covert Iranian support for the Houthi insurgency against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-backed Hadi government.

What do we know about the Iranian missile?

The Qiam-1 is an Iranian SRBM that meets the usually accepted Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) metric as being nuclear-capable. This means that the missile can at a minimum traverse 300 km to deliver a warhead of at least 500 kg. Reported range and payload estimates for the Qiam-1 allege that it can travel up to 800 km carrying a 750 kg warhead. First debuting in Iran in 2010 with a triconic warhead, the Qiam-1 is a single-stage solid-fueled SRBM. It is also Iran’s first finless ballistic missile, implying the possession of some form of an advanced guidance system. Experts have noted that the Qiam-1 is an Iranian domestic upgrade to the Shahab-2, which itself is an Iranian copy of the Scud C.

What has the US said?

To date, the most high-ranking US official to refer to a Houthi ballistic missile as the Qiam-1 was US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley when she specifically referenced a missile fired in July 2017. In that Nov. 7 press release, the US Mission to the UN noted that the identifying information about the missile came from Saudi Arabian official sources. Days later on Nov. 10, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrington, Commander of U.S Air Forces CENTCOM stated, “there have been Iranian markings on those missiles,” when describing the Houthi missile used in the strike on Nov. 4. He refrained, however, from formally calling the missile a Qiam-1 SRBM.

In Aug. 2016 while on a visit to Saudi Arabia, then Secretary of State John Kerry first drew attention to the issue when he told the press, “We were deeply troubled by the photographs which were shown to me early on by His Royal Highness Mohammed bin Nayef showing missiles that had come from Iran that were being positioned on the Saudi border.”

Since Kerry’s statement, there has been a disparate string of official US commentary about Iran’s role in providing ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels. In April 2017, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said “we see Iranian-supplied missiles being fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia.” Similarly, in a Sept. 2017 New York Times article, Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, Commander of US Naval Forces CENTCOM stated, “these types of weapons did not exist in Yemen before the conflict.”

What kind of ballistic missiles did Yemen previously have?

As this author has noted on at least three separate occasions, Yemen, which was divided during the Cold War, is already home to several different types of ballistic missiles. These range from the single-stage solid-fueled Tochka (Scarab) SRBM, to the Scud-B and Scud-C (Hwasong 5 and 6, respectively). Both of these types of missiles have been intercepted by Saudi missile defenses. None of these missiles, however, have the range that can reach Riyadh. A Jan. 2017 UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen poured cold water on the notion that the Houthis could have advanced their ballistic missile program this far and alone.

How did the missile arrive in Yemen?

According to the Nov. 30 Reuters article, UN sanctions experts refrained from formally pointing a finger at Iran, opting to say, “as yet has no evidence as to the identity of the broker or supplier,” of the missiles. However, they did note that missiles were being smuggled by land into Yemen “in pieces and assembled there by missile engineers.” One land route the UN monitors mentioned was through Oman. In Oct. 2016, Reuters broke a story about Iran’s use of Oman’s lax western border with Yemen to ship weapons to its Houthi partners. This overland supply route was likely chosen by Iran as a response to interdicted shipments of light-arms and anti-tank weapons by a maritime coalition.

Yet there is doubt, planted by none other than the UN Panel of Experts themselves, about Iran’s ability to ship SRBMs over land. The aforementioned Jan. 2017 UN report explicitly stated “although anti-tank guided weapons are now being smuggled on the land routes, the Panel assesses it as unlikely that the network using these routes could covertly transfer any significant quantities of larger-calibre weapon systems, such as short-range ballistic missiles, into Yemen at the current time. An anti-tank guided weapon is less than 1 m in length and easily hidden in a large truck, while a short-range ballistic missile of 7 m in length is much more difficult to conceal.”

Why does all this matter?

At the multilateral level, transferring the Qiam-1 would constitute a violation of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2216 from 2015, which formally levied an arms embargo on Yemen. It would also be a violation of Annex B of UNSCR 2231, which codified the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and contains clauses governing transfers of ballistic missile technology found in the MTCR list.

Worse, according to an article by France 24 analyzing the same UN report, the Iranian missile was “marked with a logo similar to that of the Sahid Begheri Industrial Group … a subsidiary of the Iranian Aerospace Industries Organization.” Both entities, known in the West by their English-language acronyms, SBIG and AIO respectively, are part of Iran’s defense-industrial base, with AIO being a formal subsidiary of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). While all three entities remain sanctioned in the US under Executive Order 13382, according the 2015 nuclear deal, the European Union is slated to de-list them no later than 2023.

At the strategic level, if Iran’s provision of ballistic missiles to the Houthi rebels is confirmed, it could be seen as an indicator Tehran’s increased tolerance for risk in a distant conflict theater, one in which it has sought to weaken Saudi Arabia by any means possible.

Given the recent death of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had a falling out with the Houthi rebels, the Saudis and other GCC coalition-members will be looking to capitalize on a critical juncture in the war in Yemen. But equally important to the conflict is how Tehran reads the post-Saleh situation and what weapons it offers the Houthis.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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