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Iran Learning from Houthi Use of Missiles, Drones in Yemen

Analysts say attacks on Saudi Arabia by Shi’ite rebels represent a preview of future conflicts

Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen are getting more brazen in their use of ballistic missiles and drones, and analysts tell The Media Line that this could be a preview of future conflicts involving key regional players in the Middle East, as well as superpowers such as the United States.

On June 23, the Shi’ite Houthis said they had carried out the largest attack yet on neighboring Saudi Arabia, leader of a Sunni coalition aiming to restore Yemen’s government-in-exile led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The coalition said it had intercepted and destroyed ballistic missiles and armed drones launched from Houthi-held Saana toward Riyadh.

In response to an increase in cross-border attacks from Yemen, the coalition confirmed on Thursday that a major military operation against the Houthis had been launched the day before to target the rebel leadership.

“Right now, what is going on is a lot of learning,” Ari Heistein, research fellow and chief of staff to the director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line.

“[The Iranians] are learning how to use [these aerial weapons]. They are learning when to use them, what they can hit, how to evade air defenses. At the same time, the Houthis are learning,” he explained.

“I would hope that the Saudis are learning a lot as well,” Heistein continued. “They have a lot of experience with missile and drone strikes on the kingdom.”

That experience includes well-coordinated September 2019 drone strikes on state-owned Saudi Aramco oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for those attacks, but a report presented to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday by Secretary General Antonio Guterres points the finger squarely at Iran for sponsoring them.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry welcomed the report, with Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the kingdom’s foreign minister, tweeting that the findings reinforced the need to extend an arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire on October 18, and to confront the Islamic Republic’s “developing nuclear and ballistic programs.”

Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently co-authored a report on the extensive use of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones in Yemen’s civil war, and says Iran has been taking notes.

“[The Iranians] are getting a lot of good information on how their systems work. These are mostly Iranian systems that the Houthis are using,” he told The Media Line.

[The Iranians] are getting a lot of good information on how their systems work. These are mostly Iranian systems that the Houthis are using

“There are [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] trainers and advisers on the ground,” Williams stated. “They are seeing these weapons work and they are seeing how they work. How accurate are they on balance. What are their limitations.”

Iran is developing not just sophisticated missiles and drones, but more mundane weapons as well.

On Monday, Saudi representatives from the Arab Coalition revealed details on the seizure of two Iranian weapon shipments on their way to the Houthis. The operations took place on April 17 and June 24. The cache included “night and day binoculars, drone-guiding systems, remote detonation electrical parts and dozens of sniper rifles,” according to a report in Arab News.

Heistein argues that extending the arms embargo against Iran will not make much of a difference since the Islamic Republic is already clearly flouting it.

“Whether there is an embargo or isn’t an embargo, they will probably continue to ship weapons to the Houthis,” he noted.

Yet Williams emphasizes that introducing all kinds of weapons, not just missiles and drones, into the Yemen conflict is a good argument for extending the ban.

“You have the Iranians themselves being more aggressive [with] the projectiles,” Williams said. “You’ve seen Iran becoming increasingly comfortable firing ballistic missiles and cruise missiles around the region willy nilly.”