Saudi Arabia on November 6 accused Iran of being behind an attempted missile attack on Riyadh's international airport over the weekend that could constitute “an act of war”.
“Iran’s role and its direct command of its Houthi [rebel] proxy [in Yemen] in this matter constitutes a clear act of aggression that targets neighbouring countries, and threatens peace and security in the region and globally,” the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen said in a statement. The attack, the coalition added, could be considered “an act of war against the kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.
This past year has been fraught with tension between arch-rivals Riyadh and Tehran. The Saudis, somewhat wary of Iran's growing revival of its oil, gas and petrochemical power since the late 2015 nuclear deal led to the removal of crippling sanctions on its economy, stood full square behind US President Donald Trump when in late May during a visit to the Saudi capital he vilified Iran as the bogeyman of the Middle East. Then in early June, after the deadly terrorist attacks in Tehran on the parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Saudis were angered by statements from Iranian hardliners that linked the terrorism back to hostility towards Iran in Saudi Arabia. The two countries have also taken opposing sides in the ongoing blockade of Qatar led by Riyadh, with Iran helping Doha, accused by the Saudis of supporting terrorist groups and of being too close to Tehran, deal with disruptions to flight routes and vital supplies such as food deliveries.
Yemen’s Shiite Houthis rebels fired a missile at the airport in Riyadh on November 4 which as intercepted by Saudi air defences. Nevertheless, the explosion shook homes and was heard in the Saudi capital.
News agencies reported Turki al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi coalition, as claiming that Iran had provided the Houthis with ballistic missiles, launchers, explosive-laden drones and sea mines.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hit back fiercely, accusing Saudi Arabia of “bombing Yemen to smithereens, killing thousands of innocents including babies, spreading cholera and famine, and of course blaming Iran.” On Twitter, he added that Riyadh “is engaged in wars of aggression, regional bullying, destabilising behaviour and risky provocations. It blames Iran for the consequences.”
More than 10,000 men, women and children are thought to have died since Riyadh opened its offensive to place elected president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi back in control of its neighbour. Houthi tribesmen swept into the capital Sana’a two years ago.
Iran has denied supplying missiles to the Houthis, saying the rebels now have their own missiles with improved range.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi also categorically denied that Iran had any connection to the missile attack. “The Saudis, who have failed to achieve their evil goals during the long-term military aggression against Yemen, are making more problems for their defeated coalition with a clumsy psychological operation to make baseless and false accusations,” he said on November 6.
“Our friendly advice to them is to stop playing the blame game and levelling accusations against others, and rather halt their attacks on the innocent and defenceless people of Yemen as soon as possible, and pave the way for Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue and peace-making in that country,” Tasnim News Agency also quoted him as saying.
The Associated Press reported the Houthis as stating the missile launch was in reaction to Saudi-led bombings in Yemen that have killed thousands of civilians in the course of the war. The Houthis have previously fired missiles across the border, but the latest missile ventured further into Saudi territory than any previous one.
Trump, while in Japan on an official visit, praised the Saudi missile defences, saying they “took the missile right out of the air. Blew it up”. The White House said that in a phone call to Saudi King Salman the president had re-emphasised his support for Saudi purchases of American military equipment to keep the kingdom safe.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen since 2015 in the fight for influence over the shape of the Middle East.