The cruise missiles and drones that were used to attack Saudi Arabia in September 2019 were of “Iranian origin,” the UN secretary-general has concluded. The document in which the UN assessed that the cruise missile parts used in four attacks are from Iran was part of a report by UN head Antonio Guterres.
This should be a ground breaking and important study because it reveals Iran’s involvement in attacks on a neighbor. Tehran has rejected the claims.
The finding should put Iran on the back foot regarding implementation of resolution 2231, which is linked to the 2015 Iran Deal. The transfer of weapons would be “inconsistent” with 2231, the UN said. Iran disagrees.
But the evidence seems clear. Iran was involved in the attacks on Saudi Arabia, including an airport attack, by transferring technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The UN also saw evidence from US seizures of weapons at sea found in December 2019 and February 2020.
This has wider implications because The National in the UAE reports that the Houthis also built up their drone industry with the help of Iran. This was already widely suspected, as the Houthis don’t have the technology to build the Qasef drones they used against Riyadh. These loitering and surveillance munitions have proven effective, giving the Houthis a kind of instant small air force to wreak havoc.
Now the UAE report says that there was “reverse proliferation” in that the Iranians “then took the Houthi manufactured drones to the launch area in Iran, opposite the Kuwait border, and used them alongside their own cruise missiles as part of a "plausible deniability" operation against Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi Qasef-1 drone is based on the Iranian Ababil-2 drone. It’s widely known that Iranian technology, such as gyroscopes, link Iran to these Houthi drones. But the new report argues that Iran not only exported technology but, after having tested it in Yemen, brought it back.
It used these drones to fly hundreds of kilometers to strike at oil facilities at Abqaiq in September 2019. The drones apparently couldn’t fly the 800 km. from Yemen to do the job. But they did avoid radar and air defense. It was a sophisticated operation using 25 drones and cruise missiles.
Of interest is that pro-Iranian groups in Iraq also want drone technology. Brigade 26 of the Popular Mobilization Units, a group of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries in Iraq, showed off a new surveillance UAV on Saturday. The drone is in the hands of the Al-Abbas Combat Division, which is linked to the Abbas shrine in Karbala. It’s not clear from where the brigade got the know-how to build its own drone, but drones increasingly play a role in the region.
Whether the UN report will result in more pressure on Iran is unclear. It is now widely known that Tehran transfers weapons and technology to Yemen.
But the UN has shown itself unable to prevent or do much about Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah and others, so the finding may fall flat: One more piece of evidence that is accepted but not acted upon.