On Sunday, a series of drone and missile attacks was launched at military and oil industry-related facilities in Saudi Arabia. Among the sites targeted was the oil storage yard at Ras Tanura, the site of the world's largest offshore oil-loading facility. A refinery is also located in this area. A missile was launched at a residential compound maintained by the Saudi state oil company Aramco in the area of Dhahran. Taking responsibility for the attacks, the Yemeni Ansar Allah Houthi movement also claimed to have launched attacks on military targets in the Saudi cities of Dammam, Asir and Jazan.
These attacks were the latest episode in a process of escalation currently underway in the region. In it, the Iranians are mobilizing both their own forces and the full range of their proxies in a campaign of attacks against the United States and its allies. The attacks on a US facility at the Erbil Airport in northern Iraq on February 15, the rockets fired on US personnel at the Balad Airbase on February 20, the placing of limpet mines on the Israeli-owned cargo ship MV Helios Ray in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, the rockets launched against US facilities at the Ayn al Asad Airbase in Iraq's Anbar Province on March 3, and the current Houthi offensive on the city of Marib all constitute elements of this offensive campaign.
The claim by the Houthis of responsibility for the latest attacks on Ras Tanura and Dhahran is of particular note. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea, quoted by Al Jazeera on March 7, said the organization fired "14 drones and 8 ballistic missiles" at the above-mentioned targets in a "wide operation in the heart of Saudi Arabia."
The array of proxy political-military organizations maintained by Tehran across the region is useful, among other reasons, for the cloak of deniability they afford the Iranians in their assertion of power across the Middle East. When it suits Iranian purposes, such organizations as the Iraqi Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, the Syrian Quwat al-Ridha group and others openly proclaim their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its system of government. At other times, they present themselves as independent actors, merely inspired by the Iranian example.
The level of credible deniability available to a particular proxy tends to wax and wane with time, however. The Lebanese Hezbollah group, for example, is straightforwardly a creation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). This can be discerned from the movement's own history, from its iconography, and from the statements of its own leaders. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, for example, in mid-2018, was reported by Iranian media as saying the Iranian system of government vilayat-e faqih, (guardianship of the jurist) was above the Lebanese constitution, and its orders binding.
Yet for many years, the fiction of Lebanese Hezbollah as an independent, home-grown, home-directed organization was dutifully maintained in most media coverage and research work on the organization, and in the perceptions of Western governments, as informed by their local representatives in embassies across the region. Attempts by Israeli or other voices to point out the obvious flaws in such a perception were dismissed as simplistic or propaganda.
Today, perceptions regarding Lebanese Hezbollah have shifted somewhat. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the broader network of "Hezbollah" franchises in other countries (Iraq, Syria, Bahrain) is more widely known. Second, Lebanese Hezbollah's activities on behalf of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war have exposed its role as an instrument of Iranian regional policy in a way that is difficult for all but its most ardent defenders to dismiss.
The Houthis retain a degree of deniability that other Iran-backed groups have lost.
The Yemeni Ansar Allah, or Houthi movement, however, largely retains the portion of deniability that other Iran-linked or Iran-controlled groupings have lost. The Iranian preference for using the Houthis as the preferred address to which current attacks on Saudi Arabia can be attributed might derive from this perception of the movement. Any designation of the Houthis as an Iranian proxy is still often presented as simplistic, failing to account for local realities and conditions, much the way that Lebanese Hezbollah was seen before 2014.
Is there any basis to the notion that the Houthis, in contrast to the various Hezbollahs, are a genuine local movement, pursuing independent objectives outside of the framework of the Iranian regional project?
There is some basis for this claim. Unlike the various Hezbollah franchises, Ansar Allah is not a creation of the Revolutionary Guards per se. It was not established directly by IRGC cadres, as were the Hezbollahs of Lebanon and Iraq. Rather, the movement derives from local initiatives emerging in the 1990s, opposed to the US invasion of Iraq, hostile to Israel and to Jews, and influenced by the Shia political Islam of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. The Houthis and the communities from which they draw their support are adherents to the Zaidiyyah branch of Shia Islam, the oldest Shia trend. The Iranians and the Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi Shia who follow them, by contrast, are Twelver Shias.
But the differences are of degree, not of kind. The IRGC officers who presided over the establishment of Hezbollah franchises in Lebanon and Iraq organized and brought together young Shias inspired by the Iranian revolution and regime. The IRGC in Yemen has played a similar role, albeit interfacing with more crystallized prior existing organizations.
Evidence of active Iranian support for the Houthis has been available for at least a decade. In 2012, an Iranian vessel carrying surface-to-air missiles, Katyusha rockets, RPG-7s and other ordnance was seized en route to Yemen. Then-secretary of state John Kerry in 2015 confirmed in a public statement that the US was aware of Iranian support for the Houthis. Support appears to have increased dramatically over the last half decade, as the Houthis have launched their bid for power in Yemen and captured the capital Sana'a.
But while Houthi military capabilities have undoubtedly improved thanks to Iran in recent years, the perception of the group as not dependent on Tehran appears to remain a major asset for the movement in the eye of its patrons. The Houthis, for example, were the first to claim responsibility for the strategic attack on the Saudi Aramco oil plants in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019. A UN investigation later cast doubt on the claim. It noted that the drones and land-attack cruise missiles used in the attack had a sophistication probably beyond the reach of the Houthis. Later, Reuters reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had ordered the attack.
A similar logic may well apply to the current round of attacks on Ras Tanura and other facilities. The Houthis are without doubt supported by Iran. But is it likely that the sophisticated drone and ballistic missile attacks that Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing are the work of a North Yemeni militia, deciding of its own accord to carry out acts of war against a US-aligned state? The balance of probabilities must lean toward a more direct Iranian role, at the decision-making and very possibly also at the operative level. The (vital) role of the Houthis, meanwhile, is political. They enable Tehran to avoid any process of retribution – for as long as the fiction is accepted.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.