Last week, the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington D.C. released a nine-page primer on Iran’s continued support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. This document summarized findings from a March 26 press conference that followed a barrage of missile attacks against three Saudi cities on the eve of the third anniversary of the military operation in Yemen. Buried within the same document was photographic evidence of Saudi Arabia’s latest charge against Iran: the provision of the Sayyad-2C surface-to-air missile (SAM) to Houthi rebels.
What Do We Know About The Origins And Evolution Of The Sayyad-2?
The Sayyad-2 is a medium-range SAM that began production in Iran in November 2013. Just under five meters in length, the Sayyad-2 has an estimated range of 80-150 kilometers and can reportedly reach altitudes of 20,000-30,000 meters while carrying a high-explosive warhead.
Like most Iranian weapons, the Sayyad SAM has its origins in foreign military hardware. The Sayyad-2 is based on the American SM-1 (RIM-66), which the Iranian Navy reportedly received from the US prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This SM-1 was suitable for rail-launch on Iranian vessels. Over the years, Iran is believed to have integrated its SM-1 variant into a new ground-based domestic air-defense system called the Talash, which uses a canister-launcher. In 2012, Iran test-fired the domestically-manufactured Mehrab SAM, which stands to take the place of the Sayyad missile aboard Iran’s naval vessels. In 2013, Iranian outlets reported that the country’s S-200 SAM system (which uses a rail-launcher) would be equipped with the Sayyad-2. Iran has since developed a physically longer and longer-range Sayyad SAM for the Talash system called the Sayyad-3.
Saudi ‘Known-Knowns’ and ‘Known-Unknowns’ About The Iranian SAM
The airframe of a Sayyad-2C SAM was presented at the Saudi press conference on March 26, in addition to being pictured in the aforementioned findings document by the Saudi embassy. The SAM, whose warhead and fins were missing, bore the words “Sayyad Missile” in Persian which was followed by the English number and letter “2C.” The Saudi primer offered two written statements (in the form of bullet points) about the Iranian SAM. The first read: “The Houthis are using Sana’a airport for training their militias and for launching Iranian-made ‘Siyad’-type missiles.” The second stated: “The Coalition has intercepted an Iranian-made ‘Siyad’ type missile which was being smuggled to Yemen (on display at the press conference).”
None of the above statements clarify if the Houthis ever fired this SAM at Saudi or Coalition warplanes. It also remains unknown if there is a stockpile of Sayyad-2’s in Sana’a airport. Additionally, it is also not clear how widely, if at all, this Iranian SAM has been proliferated across the Arabian Peninsula. Lastly, while Saudi military authorities referenced intercepting the Sayyad-2C; the exact number of missiles intercepted was not reported in the document.
But that is not the extent of the information available about the Iranian SAM in the Arabian Peninsula. According to a tweet from an analyst at Janes, the Saudi military spokesperson claimed that the Badr-1 launcher – which uses a canister – is being used to fire the Sayyad-2.
What Has Iran Given The Houthis Thus Far And Why Does This SAM Matter?
In addition to political support, the Islamic Republic has provided the Houthis with various light-arms like AK-47s, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and Iranian copies of American and Russian anti-tank weapons. It has also furnished the Houthi insurgency with suicide boats and drones, as well as roadside bombs. What has garnered the most publicity however, is Iran’s role as force multiplier for Houthi missile capabilities. Case and point is Iran’s proliferation of a nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) called the Burkan-2H (a copy of Iran’s Qiam-1) into the Arabian Peninsula.
The Bukran-2H has measurably grown the range of Houthi striking-power against surface targets. The Sayyad SAM could do the same against aerial targets. Both missile transfers violate at least two UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs). The first is UNSCR 2216 which imposes an arms embargo on Yemen, and the second is UNSCR 2231 which codifies the Iran nuclear deal and contains an Annex featuring an arms transfer prohibition set to expire in 2020.
A Role For The US?
To date, Washington has not explicitly mentioned the transfer of the SAM or its potential impact. On Monday March 26, the US Department of State issued a condemnation of the Houthis for their missile strikes while failing to reference Iran as the main foreign force augmenting Houthi missile capabilities. The next day, during a press conference, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis only twice referenced Iran in relation to the conflict in Yemen. It took until Friday March 31 for the US government (in the form of a statement by the White House Press Secretary) to specifically hold Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) accountable. But the US must not stop there, and should take the case (along with other noteworthy instances of Iranian bad behavior – like missile procurement) before the United Nations.
The US must not lose any opportunity to highlight Iran’s nefarious role in the war in Yemen as well as in the region more broadly. A timely and robust US diplomatic response against Iran would serve four immediate policy goals: 1) Making sure the Europeans, with whom the US is negotiating with about the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, are seriously taking the threat of Iranian missile proliferation, 2) Ensuring that UNSCRs 2216 and 2231 are vigorously enforced, 3) Ensuring that Saudi Arabia, a crucial American partner in the Middle East whose capital is under attack, knows the US stands with it and its people, and 4) Living up to the admirable new Iran strategy which the Trump administration rolled-out in October 2017 and re-affirmed in January 2018.
No Endstate In Sight?
With the conflict in the Arabian Peninsula having entered its fourth year, Iran appears more intent than ever to continue backing the Houthi rebels. In fact, Iranian material support for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen has evolved over time. The effect of this diverse weaponry has been to dampen the prospects for fruitful negotiations and incentivize the Houthis to continue fighting. While a diplomatic solution remains ideal, Iran’s provision of missiles to the Houthis underscores the need for a military predicate to achieve any diplomatic solution.
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