Iranian Rocketry in the Service of the Houthis in Yemen

In August 2016, several media sources have reported the first use of Iranian Zelzal-3 missiles by the Houthis in Yemen. Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay analyzes the effect of the missile threat to the military balance of the war

Iranian Rocketry in the Service of the Houthis in Yemen

Houthis rally in Sanaa, Yemen (Photo: AP)

A missile fired by Yemeni militias on August 16, 2016, killed seven civilians in Najaran, Saudi Arabia. It was the highest reported number of civilian casualties in the kingdom's south since a Saudi-led coalition intervened 17 months ago in Yemen.

The Houthis have fired missiles from Yemen toward Saudi Arabia at least 19 times between June 2015 and July 23, 2016, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Only two of those missiles were not intercepted. Until July 2016, in most of the reports the missiles were identified as Scud missiles.

It is not clear how many missiles Houthi forces currently have in their arsenal. Yemen’s military was believed to have had 300 Scud missiles when the conflict began – most of which fell under the control of Houthi rebels and allied troops loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president. Some previous estimates of Yemen’s missile arsenal from defense analysis groups were much smaller.

Yemen is believed to have several different types of Scud missiles of both North Korean and Soviet origin. During 1994’s civil war between southern separatists and the forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, both sides used Scuds.

The Houthis first launched a Scud missile in early June 2015, after two months of Saudi-led bombing. Saudi Patriot missiles intercepted the Scud, which was aimed at a Saudi Arabian air base.

Major General Nasser Al-Tahri, Deputy Commander-in-chief, revealed that the military of Yemen acquired information confirming the cooperation of several Iranian experts with Houthi rebels to gear up Scud missiles.

In August 2016, several media sources have reported the first use of Iranian Zelzal-3 missiles in the war in Yemen:

Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) has said that missiles made in Iran were recently used in Yemen by Houthi militias in cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia. The news comes despite Iranian denials earlier in August 2016, of their direct involvement in sending weapons to Yemen. According to the Iranian news agency, those rockets that were fired were found to be Zelzal-3 missiles.

Hezbollah TV channel, Al-Manar, claimed, "The rocketry power in the Yemeni army and the popular committees fired a ballistic missile on a Saudi military camp in Jizan. Military sources said that the attack was part of retaliation by the Yemeni allied forces against violations carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. The camp was totally destroyed; with dozens of Saudi-led forces were killed or injured" […] "Few days earlier, the allied forces also fired missiles on Saudi camps in Najran and Jizan in the border area between Yemen and Saudi. Three ballistic missiles (local-made Zelzal) and Uragan rockets were in response to the continuous violations by the Saudi-led coalition."

The Daily World News reported that Houthi rebels in Yemen fired at a military base in the South of neighboring Saudi Arabia’s “Zelzal-3″ (“Earthquake-3″) missile. According to Houthis, the missile “accurately hit the target” at a military base in the area of Najran, but data on victims or destructions were not given. Saudi side information is not commented.

The "Zelzal-3" missile

Iran’s short-range missile systems include a wide variety of systems among them the Zelzal family: Zelzal-1 (150 km), Zelzal-2 (210 km), and Zelzal-3 (200–250 km).

Zelzal-3 (meaning "earthquake" in Persian) is an Iranian-made solid propellant single stage missile, with a range of 200 km. The Zelzal-3 missile was first introduced in September 1999. The variant Zelzal-3B has smaller warhead and a range of 250 km.

Iran is already taking steps in giving its conventionally armed missiles more accuracy. Iran is deploying short-range systems with GPS guidance and has publicly said that it is seeking to provide its missiles with precision guidance and terminal homing warheads, and with countermeasures to ballistic missile defenses.

In 2001, some unverified reports claimed that the missiles had been equipped with a simple inertial guidance system. A number of sources indicate that its systems with significantly improved guidance include the production of the Zelzal-2 as a guided rocket and the Zelzal-3 ballistic missile. The Zelzal-3 has 600 kg warhead with 1300m CEP. The Zelzal-3 has a transporter erector launcher.

According to some reports, Iran has armed its allies with Zelzal-3 missiles: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad regime in Syria and now the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia's Response to the Missile Threat

Offensive Countermeasures

On March 28, 2015, two days after the Saudi-led bombardment on Yemen began (Operation Decisive Storm), Saudi coalition spokesperson, Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri, said the bombing campaign had destroyed “most” of the rebels’ missile capabilities. Brig. Gen. Assiri asserted that 80 percent of Yemen’s 300 or so missiles had been destroyed. On April 20, 2015, a coalition strike targeted a Scud missile base in Sana'a, killed 25. However, the air strikes still did not eliminate the Houthi’s missile capabilities.

The Saudi Arabian anti-missile defense

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used American-made Patriot missile interceptors to shoot down missiles and rockets fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen. The Patriot is a defense system, which has components made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

The Saudis claim to have intercepted around 40 percent of the missiles fired across their border, though the number is impossible to verify.

In 2015, the State Department cleared Saudi Arabia to buy 600 advanced PAC-3 interceptors, which are made by Lockheed Martin.

On August 14, 2016, Saudi Arabia, managed to intercept two ballistic missiles that were fired into the Saudi border city of Najran, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. Probably this was the first time that the Saudi air defense system intercepted Zelzal-3 missiles.


Operation "Decisive Storm" was the only option to prevent Houthi-Saleh alliance backed by Iran from occupying Yemen and turning it into a large regional war front between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia achieved this goal, but the war is not over.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance backed by Iran has little incentive to reach a diplomatic compromise at peace talks as long as it controls significant areas of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a. The political process to resolve the crisis between Yemen's warring parties has collapsed in August 2016.

The coalition fighting to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi accuses Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons. Accusations that have been denied by Iran.

Yemen’s Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr said, "Iran is trying to settle scores with Gulf and Arab countries; wherever we hear about sectarian strife, we find Iran’s interference in it," the Yemeni official said. The Yemeni premier said that Arab leaders should review the Persian State’s practices and positions towards their countries to adopt a unified Arab stance against such interference.

Pro-Houthi media reports claimed that the Houthis had displayed new, “locally-designed” Zelzal-3 missiles. The building of such weapons in Yemen requires advanced technology, which the Houthis and their ally, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, do not possess. Therefore, the missiles are likely to be Iranian imports.

On April 14, 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2216 lent international blockade on Yemen, calling for member states to "take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply of arms to these actors." The supply of Zelzal-3 missiles by Iran to the Houthi rebels is a clear violation of the UN resolution.

Only two regimes, Iran and Syria, as well as Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, are known to own such missiles.

While the attempted use of Scud and Zelzal-3 missiles against civilian and military targets in Saudi Arabia was a clear escalation of the war, the infamously inaccurate and ineffective ballistic missiles are not likely to change the military balance of the war in Yemen.

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