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What Can We Learn About Iran-Houthi Ties from the New UN Panel Report?

Relations between Iran and the Houthis were marginal 10 years ago; today, the Houthis are one of the most important partners in the network of armed non-state actors that Iran supports throughout the region. Studying the evolution of the Iran-Houthi partnership is difficult: there is limited publicly available information on the political dynamics between leaders on both sides or on the nature of Iran’s military support.

One of the few sources of reliable information over the years has been the reports of the Panel of Experts (PoE) on Yemen, submitted yearly to the United Nations Security Council. The latest report, released in late January, provides additional insight on Iran’s policies in Yemen. The PoE report covers other topics, such as economic issues and developments on the battlefield, but they are not the focus here.

Previous PoE reports included information that marked significant new trends, notably on Houthi missile and drone capabilities and the group’s integration into Iran’s global smuggling networks. The most recent, covering the period from December 6, 2020, to December 5, 2021, does not reveal any such dramatic developments but does confirm that existing trends are being further consolidated.

The Houthis continued to launch drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2021, targeting border areas with short- and medium- range systems (such as Qasef-2K drones and Badr-type rockets) and critical infrastructure deep in the country with longer range ones (notably Samad-type drones, Quds-type cruise missiles and Zulfiqr ballistic missiles.[1] Attacks on border areas occurred several times a week throughout 2021, often using multiple drones and missiles; according to the PoE, this illustrates that the Houthis remain “easily able” to acquire components for these systems from abroad and assemble them locally. The PoE is aware of only one attack with a cruise missile and three with longer range ballistic missiles in 2021; this, in its view, suggests that the Houthis continue to struggle to acquire more sophisticated components for longer range systems from abroad.

The handful of attacks with longer-range drones and missiles caused limited damage. Their primary purpose was not military, but political: they sent a clear signal that all, or almost all, of Saudi Arabia is within the Houthis’ reach; attacks on the UAE in early 2022 accomplished a similar feat. The Houthis’ primary goal with such strikes is to pressure its adversaries and build leverage for eventual negotiations (as opposed to their use of short-range systems inside Yemen, which have the clear military purpose of inflicting as much damage as possible). The Houthis are highly unlikely to agree to abandon or cede control of these advanced systems in a post-war settlement; the message is that Saudi Arabia and its partners must recognize this new balance of power – or face more attacks.

The PoE also reported on the Houthis’ continued use of water-borne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDS) in the Red Sea. The PoE assesses that they launched four such attacks in 2021, including against ships moored at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia more than 1,000 km away. Some of these attacks used a new type of WBIED, not previously reported, powered by two outboard engines. Given the distance to maritime facilities in Saudi Arabia, the PoE assessed that some attacks were not launched from the coast of Yemen, but rather from a “mothership” offshore.[2] This would be an important development, indicative of the Houthis’ growing presence and ambition in the Red Sea.

There were multiple seizures of small vessels – usually fishing dhows – by the navies of the US and its allies and partners in 2021, as they continued efforts to stem weapons trafficking. One such vessel, interdicted by the US Navy on February 11, carried 3,752 assault rifles, 198 machine guns, components for heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. In many cases, the PoE was unable to assess with a high degree of certainty that the weapons originated in Iran and were intended for the Houthis. However, in many cases, it has been able to establish that at least some of the weapons were of Iranian origin, while others originated in other countries (such as China and Belarus) but could have been acquired by Iran from another supplier. The RPG launchers seized in February, for example, were likely of Iranian origin, as were other weapons seized later in the year. The PoE’s investigation also showed that Iran likely continues to smuggle a smaller quantity of weapons using overland routes through Oman, as illustrated by the seizure of seven thermal weapon sights manufactured by a Chinese-Iranian joint venture at the Shahin border crossing in June.

These findings confirm a pre-existing trend: Iran continues to smuggle large amounts of small arms as well as technologically complex parts for advanced systems, primarily by sea, but to a lesser extent through Oman as well. In some cases, these come directly from Iran (with known cases of transshipment at sea or in Somalia). One of the most significant developments of recent years, confirmed and accelerated in 2021, has been the increasingly deep integration of the Houthis in Iran’s global supply chain networks for weapons, weapons parts and dual-use items. As the new report confirms, the Houthis “continue to source critical components for their weapons systems from companies in Europe and Asia.”[3] The PoE investigated the chain of custody for items such as a pressure transmitter initially manufactured in Germany, which ended up as part of a cruise missile used to attack Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in November 2021. The transmitter appeared to have been purchased from China by a company in Oman, and the PoE has traced similar items to Iran and Turkey.

Overall, the findings in the new PoE report allow us to refine our imperfect understanding of Iran-Houthi ties. They confirm, in particular, existing trends concerning the deepening of the partnership, and help us better understand its long-term consequences.


This article is part of a series of publications by the Sana’a Center examining the roles of state and non-state foreign actors in Yemen.

Endnotes
  1. “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council resolution,” United Nations Security Council, January 26, 2022, p. 23, https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/{65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9}/S_2022_50.pdf
  2. “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council resolution,” p. 21
  3. “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council resolution,” p. 32