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Seven reasons to reject the accusations of supplying Yemenis with 'Iranian' missiles

Alleged Qiam debris (Photo: Reuters)

Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, on Thursday showed 'concrete proof' that Iran is violating United Nations Resolutions by supplying weapons to the Houthi Ansarullah forces, a rebel group in Yemen. "In this warehouse is concrete evidence of illegal Iranian weapons proliferation, gathered from direct military attacks on partners in the region," she said, standing in front of a charred ballistic missile the size of a car, during a press conference at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling in Washington, DC. Gesturing to the massive rocket behind her, she argued for stronger international sanctions against Iran. Before Haley, Saudi officials had also put on display the missile's remnants on state TV, in a bid to convince viewers that the missile was indeed shot down.

"These are the recovered pieces of a missile fired by Houthi militants from Yemen into Saudi Arabia," Haley said. "The missile’s intended target was a civilian airport in Riyadh through which tens of thousands of passengers travel each day. Just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dulles Airport or JFK, or the airports in Paris, London or Berlin. The fight against Iranian aggression is the world’s fight," she added. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided the Pentagon with the recovered missile parts. One fragment recovered from its body allegedly included a builder's mark from the Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG), an Iranian rocket manufacturer. "These are Iranian made, these are Iranian sent and these were Iranian given," she said.

The Yemeni Army, backed by Houthi Ansarullah fighters, on 5 November stated that a Burkan-2 (Volcano-2) medium-range ballistic missile had landed on King Khalid International Airport, located 35 kilometers north of the Saudi capital Riyadh. Saudi officials initially denied that the missile had hit the airport, claiming it was shot down by American-made Patriot missile systems designed to counter missile threats. However, a team of American missile experts using satellite imagery, camera footage and scientific explanations proved earlier this month that the missile had indeed landed near one of the airport's runways.

International responses

Renouncing US claims that Iran is supplying it with ballistic missiles, Yemen's Houthi movement says the accusations serve as a distraction from US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Abdel-Malek al-Ejri, a senior Houthi official, said that Yemen had been firing missiles at Saudi Arabia during the course of the kingdom's military aggression against Yemen since it began in 2015. "After three years of war, America suddenly finds evidence that Iran supports the Houthis," he wrote in a message on his Twitter account. "America did not find any evidence in all the missiles fired from Yemen until now. The story is clear. They want to give Arabs a story to divert their attention from Jerusalem. Instead of being angry at Israel, they wave the Iranian bogey," the official added.

Iran's mission to the UN has categorically dismissed Nikki Haley's claim that a missile fired at Saudi Arabia from Yemen was supplied by Iran, describing her claims as unfounded. In a statement released on the same day, the mission denounced the US allegations as "irresponsible, provocative and destructive," saying "this purported evidence... is as much fabricated as the one presented on some other occasions earlier." In the statement, Iranian diplomats responded that "These accusations seek also to cover up for the Saudi war crimes in Yemen, with the US complicity, and divert international and regional attention from the stalemate war of aggression against the Yemenis that has so far killed more than 10,000 civilians, displaced three million, crippled Yemen's infrastructure and health system and pushed the country to the brink of the largest famine the world has seen for decades, as the UN has warned."

"While Iran has not supplied Yemen with missiles, these hyperboles are also to serve other US agendas in the Middle East, including covering up for its adventurist acts in the region and its unbridled support for the Israeli regime," the statement read. It also stressed "the Yemenis' right to self-defense" and reiterated that the conflict in the impoverished country had no military solution. Gholam-Ali Khoshrou, the Iranian Ambassador to the UN, also rejected his US counterpart's claims and said the "show" Haley put up earlier in the day was merely meant to cover up Washington’s own supply lethal weapons to the Saudi regime, which have resulted in the deaths of Yemeni women and children. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's Foreign Minister, also took to Twitter to compare Haley's allegations against Iran to those of Colin Powell, who alleged in 2003 that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction in order to make a case for attacking the country. Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the UN Secretary General, also doubted the Saudi and American claims, saying even the UN has been unable to confirm the origin of the missiles.

Pentagon's claims

The Pentagon displayed debris from what officials said were Iranian-made "Qiam" ballistic missiles fired from Yemen, one from July 22 and another on November 4, at King Khaled International Airport near Riyadh. Officials explained in detail why the Pentagon believed the arms came from Iran, pointing to "markings of the SBIG" and "unique designs" of Iranian weaponry. "The point of this entire display is that only Iran makes this missile. They have not given it to anybody else," said Laura Seal, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Seal said the US did not know when the missile had been exported from Iran, raising the possibility it was transferred to the Houthis before passage of the 2015 UN resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, including the US. An annex to UN Security Council Resolution 2231 calls on all countries to prevent the "supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran" until 2020. That extended the existing arms export ban in place since 2007.

Analysis

The missile in question is hardly a Qiam or any Iranian missile for the following reasons:

1. "Qiam" ballistic missile
Qiam is an Iranian short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) originally tested in August 2010. It's a modernized version of the Iranian Shahab-2, a licensed copy of the North Korean Hwasong-6, all derived from the Soviet Scud-C missile. A two-staged missile, it was designed to greatly reducing the time for launch preparation than previous models with rapid liquid propellants, and has no fins on the base of the first stage. Qiam has a range of 750 km, a length of 11.5 meters, diameter of 0.855 meters, and weight of 6,155 kilograms. Dimensions of Shahab-2 are almost identical.

Now, why the Pentagon claims they showed Qiam, not Shahab-2? UN Security Council Resolution 1747, passed on 24 March 2007, imposed an arms embargo against Iran. Considering Qiam entered service in 2010, it would imply the alleged export to Yemen was definitely a violation of UN Resolution (post-2007 period), and since Shahab-2 entered service in the early 1990s, it would be hard to prove that Iran did not export it somewhere between 1990 and 2007.

2. Numbered evidence
A cylindrical debris element shows the numerical marks (4-9) around the little holes of the fuel and oxidant tanks (fuel drains and oxidant vents), and if we compare them with those on Qiam displayed in the Iranian underground missile base in 2015, it seems to fit perfectly. Still, it will also fit perfectly on most of the Scud-derived models because the middle part is identical. Warheads and fins vary in size and shape, but they don't survive flights.

Scud, Burkan and Qiam



3. "Unique" Iranian design
As mentioned above, Qiam is ultimately based on Soviet Scud missile, and other derivatives include Iranian Shahab-1 and Shahab-2, North Korean Hwasong-5, Hwasong-6 and Hwasong-9, Iraqi Al-Hussein, Al-Hijarah and Al-Abbas, and finally, Yemeni Burkan (Volcano) types. They all have something in common: a diameter of 0.855 meters, as well as layout of (numbered) holes. Qiam indeed has an unique design of a four-conic warhead and finless body, but the Pentagon did not show any of those unique features, just a barrel typical for most types of a missile family.

Scud missile family



4. "Shahid Bagheri" marks
According to all available reports regarding Iranian missile program published over the past twenty years by the IISS, CSIS, FAS, and Jane's, the Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG) is responsible only for a solid-fuel rocket production, starting with Oghab and Fajr-3 missiles in the mid-1980. On the other hand, Iranian liquid-fuel designs are under responsibility of another company, the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG). Since Qiam is without any doubt a liquid-fuel missile in its first stage (allegedly displayed by the Pentagon), for sure it has nothing to do with the Shahid Bagheri group.

5. Transfer in "small pieces"
This claim comes from Adel al-Jubeir, who said "the missile had been smuggled into Yemen in parts and assembled there by the Iranian operatives." Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs thus believes the ballistic missiles are like Lego toys, they can be easily disassembled in the hundreds of little pieces, and then assembled with using some nice Persian manual. In the reality, rocket body construction is extremely sensitive and as a finished product it's transferred in stages. Larger stage of Qiam (or Shahab-2) has length of nine meters and weight of a few tons, so smuggling it into a country under the naval and air blockade sounds like a mere fantasy. Before Iran constructed its main space center with large building for horizontal assembly, they earlier assembled rockets in Tehran and carried them some 200 km to Semnan Province for launch. Yemen does not have such facilities, generally large, exposed and vulnerable, especially to attacks from the air. This is how typical transfer of Scud looks like:

Scud's first stage carried in Russia



6. True origin of Yemeni missiles
Both Iranian and Yemeni officials denied transfer of Qiam or any other Iranian ballistic missile to Yemen, and prior to a few days ago, there was no a single report of transferring Qiam or Shahab-2 to Yemen. Also, the Yemeni Army published photos of its short-range ballistic missiles (stockpiles and launches), and its obvious that they have fins (i.e. not Qiam). Burkans or Volcanos still aren't indigenous Yemeni missiles, they have been imported and renamed, but not from Iran. Or Iraq.

The first Scud missiles came in Yemen directly from the Soviet Union in 1979, and later they also received deliveries from North Korea. In 2002, Spanish marines boarded the North Korean ship 'So San' in the Arabian Sea, found to be transporting 15 Scud missiles (Hwasong-5) to Yemen. The sensational seizure by Spanish naval units was at first celebrated in the Western media, as Washington thought were meant for Iraq, but soon turned into an embarrassing political incident. The Yemeni foreign minister sent a very harsh letter to the US ambassador, explaining that the missiles are destined for the Yemeni army and should be sent to Yemen right away because the sale of Scud missiles is not forbidden under international law. Yemen was allowed to take possession of the missiles and was not penalized for its role in the transaction.

7. Similar Saudi claims
Before the United States, Saudis also made several equally inconsistent and illogical claims regarding Yemeni and "Iranian" missiles. Back in October 2016, they claimed that "the Houthis targeted Mecca," which was a poor attempt to gain support among Muslims worldwide, and also a demonization of two Shia-majority countries. In this specific case, they also claimed that Saudi Air Defence intercepted the "Iranian" missile, and as an evidence they showed the first stage of rocket body (not even intended to hit target), simply picked-up from a desert. However, private footages and American experts confirmed that the missile hit the airport's runway. All of such claims may boost morale among uneducated Saudi population, but experts may only laugh. The official American allegations are not far away.

Ivan Kesic

Ivan Kesić is the editor-in-chief of the Balkans Post. He is a Croatia-based freelance contributor and independent geopolitical, military and socio-economic writer. As an open-source data analyst he contributed to various regional outlets and collaborated with several government agencies in previous years. He occasionally writes articles and helps to maintain a neutral point of view in other authors' articles.