How did the Houthis – a ragtag tribal militia marooned for years in the mountains – come to drive out the legitimate government of Yemen, seize control of vast territories of the country and impose a calamitous reign of terror on its populace? The answer is to be found in the cache of Iranian weapons at their disposal – some of which, confiscated by the Saudi-led coalition, were put on display for the world to see this week.
The arms are incontrovertible testament to the instrumental role Tehran has played in propagating the conflict and its attendant humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Houthi arsenal includes sniper rifles, ballistic missiles, advanced drones, a "drone boat" equipped with explosives, designed to blow up ships and armour-piercing explosives – all of them bearing markings that reveal, beyond question, their Iranian provenance. Some, such as the drones, are facsimiles of weapons in the Iranian military inventory.
Augmenting the big weapons are improvised explosive devices so expertly disguised as rocks that they could dupe even the trained eye. As a coalition officer pointed out: “IEDs have been taken to a level difficult for adults to distinguish; imagine how bad it can be for children.” The coalition forces have cleared more than 30,000 of these IEDs, which are encased in a fibreglass shell and triggered by an internal mechanism when they come into contact with moving objects.
The Houthis have used them to devastating effect, as they have the ballistic missiles: nearly 150 missiles have been fired at Saudi Arabia since the conflict began. Tehran's complicity in the Houthis' rise – and their crimes – has been one of the worst-kept secrets of this conflict. Earlier this year a report by Conflict Armament Research, an independent watchdog group, exhaustively detailed the regime's supply of weapons to the Houthis.
In December the US supplied comprehensive proof to the UN of the Iranian origin of a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis at Riyadh's international airport. And last week UN chief Antonio Guterres admitted in a confidential memo to the UN Security Council that the "key design features" and components of Houthi-fired ballistic missiles intercepted by Saudi Arabia were identical to missiles manufactured by Iran. It is likely these missiles that targeted Yemeni government forces defending Hodeidah's airport, which is now in the coalition's control. The international community turned a blind eye to Iran's actions in order to keep alive the nuclear deal – even as Tehran exploited the deal in letter and spirit to expand its weaponry outside its terms. It is the Arab world that has had to pay the price.