U.N. Panel Finds Evidence of Iranian Hardware in Yemeni Rebels’ Missile. And American.

Investigation into weapon’s origins yields clues, but no smoking gun.

Yemeni tribesmen supporting forces loyal to Saudi-backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, launch a rocket in the Nehm region of Yemen, Feb. 4, 2016. (Abdullah al-Qadry/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni tribesmen supporting forces loyal to Saudi-backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, launch a rocket in the Nehm region of Yemen, Feb. 4, 2016. (Abdullah al-Qadry/AFP/Getty Images)

On Nov. 4, Yemen’s tribal insurgents launched a short-range ballistic missile from a remote valley in the northwestern governorate of Amran over 1,000 miles to the outskirts of Saudi Arabia’s capital, its warhead exploding on the edge of the King Khalid International Airport.

The brazen strike appears to have claimed no victims, but the missile debris left in its wake provided an evidentiary trail for U.N. investigators struggling to test claims by Washington and Riyadh that the Yemeni Houthis’ increasingly advanced missile program is being supplied by Iran.

An examination of key missile fragments, documented last month in a confidential U.N. report, supported U.S. claims that the missile was comprised of Iranian hardware. But the report, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy, provided a new twist: The weapon also included a component that was manufactured by an American company.

The White House sees the missile strike as an opportunity to rally international sentiment against Tehran, and to lessen Washington’s diplomatic isolation, which has deepened with President Donald Trump’s rejection of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. It is part of a wider administration strategy of focusing international attention on Iran’s support for a network of Shiite militias that are helping Tehran reshape the region.

“The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its partners are arming, advising, and enabling the Houthis’ violent actions, which accelerate the cycle of violence and human suffering, obstruct the flow of humanitarian aid, and disrupt efforts toward a political resolution,” according to a statement Friday night from the White House press secretary.

In recent weeks, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has pressed the Pentagon and U.S. spy agencies to declassify intelligence linking Iran to the Nov. 4 attack as well as other Iranian infractions, while U.S. national security officials have briefed U.N. officials in the hope of gaining their backing, according to U.S. officials. The U.S. goal, the official said, is to get U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to present the U.N.’s strongest case to date of Iranian sanctions violations in a report due out next week.

“This is the most forward leaning we have ever been” in terms of declassifying and sharing U.S. intelligence with U.N. officials on Tehran’s illicit activities, the U.S. official told Foreign Policy. “Our rationale is that in sharing this information we can shine a spotlight on Iran’s violations of U.N. sanctions.”

While the new evidence has strengthened the case against Iran, it has not been sufficient to convince the U.N. to explicitly accuse Tehran of supplying the Houthis with banned missile technology. A U.N. panel of experts charged with monitoring violations of Yemen’s 2015 arms embargo concluded last month that for the time being it “has no evidence as to the identity of the broker or supplier.” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, meanwhile, stopped short of charging Iran with upgrading the Houthis’ missile program.

In an unpublished report distributed to Security Council members on Friday, Guterres said the United Nations is “carefully reviewing” all the evidence related to Houthi missile attacks in Yemen, including the Nov. 4 strike. He urged the Security Council committees responsible for enforcing Yemen sanctions and monitoring the Iran nuclear deal to receive a briefing on the U.N.’s findings.

Guterres also raised concern about Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who has been subject to a U.N. travel ban for years. The Iranian commander was sighted this summer visiting a Shiite shrine in Karbala, Iraq as well as the tomb of the late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.

At the same time, Guterres said that he has received no evidence that Iran has breached its obligations under the nuclear pact. And he voiced concern that Trump renunciation of the Iran deal has “regrettably created some uncertainty regarding” its future.

The U.N. has turned up strong circumstantial evidence that the Houthis have acquired Iranian missile know how. Between Nov. 17 and 20, U.N. experts examined missile fragments from four ballistic missile attacks — including the November 4 strike — at two Saudi military bases.

For instance, the missile used in the Nov. 4 attack resembled an Iranian made Qiam-1 short-range ballistic missile, a weapon which Iran added to its arsenal in 2010 but which has never before seen in Yemen’s missile arsenal, according to a confidential report by a U.N. panel of experts charged with monitoring a 2015 arms embargo on Yemen.

The Houthi missile’s similarity with the Qiam-1 — which was first detected in Iran’s missile arsenal in 2010 — was first reported by Reuters. But FP has obtained additional information that indicates the Houthi missile contained components manufactured by a sanctioned Iranian firm as well as an unnamed American manufacturer.

One component — a device, known as an actuator, which helps steer the missile — found among the debris bore a logo in metal of an Iranian company, Shadi Bagheri Industrial Group, which is the subject of U.N., EU, and U.S. sanctions. Iran denied it played any role in the transfer of the missile, according to the panel.

FP previously reported on claims by U.S. officials that the Saudis recovered a fan jet that bore the logo of the Iranian firm, but Iran denied claims of an Iranian role.

“Iran is not and never has transferred arms in violation of the relevant [U.N. Security Council resolutions] and we continue to call on all parties in Yemen to pursue diplomatic conflict resolution,” Alireza Miryusefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, told Foreign Policy. “In terms of the allegations from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, we deny all their biased and false claims and demand they immediately halt their destabilizing meddling and starvation campaign in Yemen.”

Miryusefi said Shadi Bagheri Industrial Group “does not actually place its logo on its products” and his government is in contact with the U.N. panel to “clarify any misunderstandings.”

But the investigation also produced a surprise.

The missile, painted blue with “Borkan 2-H” written in white paint, contained another component — a set of carbon fiber compressed air bottles that circulate liquid jet fuel in the missile — manufactured in the United States, according to the panel’s report. The panel has reached out to the manufacturer, which was not named in its report, to find out how its technology found its way into a Houthi missile.

The question of how an American-made part found its way into the fabrication of the Houthi rebels’ most advanced missile is a missing piece in an enduring puzzle U.N. investigators have been struggling to solve.

Nonproliferation experts say that Iranian agents have often reached out to foreign suppliers, including in the United States, to obtain hard-to-make, high-tech components for their weapons programs.

David Albright, the founder of the Institute for Science and International Studies, said “the Iranians can’t make everything they need for their weapons programs themselves. They buy a lot of stuff wherever they can get it. And they like U.S. equipment.”

The discovery of the American component could help U.N. investigators to trace the buyer. The U.N. panel of experts have reached out to the American manufacturer, which is not named in the report. “This provides an opportunity to work with the private sector to tighten sanctions,” the U.S. official said. “We’re clearly not transferring items in violation of our own laws to the Iranians. Many high-tech things in this world have American components.”

But the presence of an American component in the Houthis’ missile could also serve arguments by Iran and its allies, including Russia, that the weapon was not produced by Iran.

The U.N. panel opened an inquiry after Yemeni Houthis on Nov. 4 fired a short-range ballistic missile at the Riyadh airport, rattling travelers and demonstrating that rebels had developed the capacity to bring the war to the Saudi capital.

Saudi and U.S. authorities claimed the missile’s Iranian attributes proved that Tehran was behind the attack. But the U.N. has been more cautious, insisting it lacks incontrovertible proof of an Iranian role.

The report’s findings appear to lend support to an analysis of a missile research team and published in the New York Times, which challenged claims made by President Trump, who said that a U.S. supplied Patriot missile defense system in Riyadh “knocked the missile out of the air.” Photos show that the Borkhan’s rocket motor and other components landed well short of their target, but that missile warhead landed perilously close to the airport.

The report comes as Saudi Arabia faces increasing pressure to ease the rapidly worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen. In recent days, the Trump administration has ratcheted up public pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease a blockade on humanitarian assistance to the war-torn country, where some 7 million people risk starvation because of the conflict. “The Saudis have taken steps in recent days and recent weeks to allow some humanitarian assistance in,” said one senior administration official, who added the administration was in discussions to push the Saudis to do more. “We will continue those discussions there’s no question about that.”

At the start of Yemen’s war, Houthi rebels inherited a government stockpile of Scud C missiles and the Hwasong-6 series short-range ballistic missile.

But the Houthis introduced a more advanced missile into the battlefield in October 2016, raising the risk that it could strike deep into the heart of Saudi Arabia. The latest version had “significant design differences” from the Scud C and Hwasong-6 missiles, which are fashioned with heavy steel exterior that slows its trajectory.

In contrast, the Houthi Borkhan H-2 was made with a lighter aluminum skin and a more advanced guidance system that negated the need for wings used on other Scuds.

The U.N. panel determined that the missile used in the Nov. 4 attack could not have produced by the Houthis’ own missile engineers, or modified from missiles in its existing arsenal. “Based on a balance of probability,” the panel concluded, “the missile technology was physically transferred to Yemen” after a U.N. arms embargo was imposed on the country in April 2015.

The panel said it was unlikely that missiles were smuggled into Yemen through any of its key Red Sea ports, suggesting it was more likely the missiles were broken down into smaller pieces and shipped through a smuggling route from Oman — or Ghaydah and Nishtun in al-Mahrah governorate of Yemen, which had previously been the site of seizures of anti-tank guidance weapons and other military equipment.”

The Houthis “obtained access to missile technology more advanced” than what they had when the conflict started in 2015, according to the panel report. “The design, characteristics and dimensions of the components inspected by the panel are consistent with those reported for the Iranian manufactured Qiam-1 missile.”

Foreign Policy reporter Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch