Crown prince links Tehran to missile fired from Yemen towards Riyadh airport, as stakes raised between regional rivals.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has accused Iran of “direct military aggression” by supplying missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, raising the stakes in an already tense standoff between the two regional rivals.
Mohammed bin Salman linked Tehran to the launch of a ballistic missile fired from Yemen towards the international airport in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Saturday. The missile was intercepted and destroyed.
Iran has denied the accusations as baseless and provocative. Saudis and their Sunni Arab allies view Yemen’s Houthi rebels – who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam – as Iranian proxies and have accused Tehran of giving them military backing.
“The involvement of the Iranian regime in supplying its Houthi militias with missiles is considered a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime,” the Saudi prince said on Tuesday during a phone conversation with the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. He added that the move “may be considered an act of war against the kingdom”.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting the advances of Houthis in Yemen, claimed that an examination of the debris which landed inside the King Khalid International Airport “has confirmed the role of Iran’s regime in manufacturing these missiles and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen”.
It said the missile’s firing was “a blatant act of military aggression by the Iranian regime” and that the kingdom reserves “right to respond”.
The kingdom has led a military intervention in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government since 2015 during which more than 8,650 people have been killed.
Prince Mohammed, who is also defence minister, is seen as a key proponent of the intervention. While his country is also in the midst of domestic political upheaval, he has been emboldened by the unwavering support of US president Donald Trump, who this week said had “great confidence” in the Saudi prince.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted on Monday that the Saudi kingdom was engaged in “wars of aggression, regional bullying, destabilising behaviour” and “risky provocations” and yet “blames Iran for the consequences”.
“#KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] bombs #Yemen to smithereens, killing 1000’s of innocents including babies, spreads cholera and famine, but of course blames Iran,” Zarif said in a series of tweets.
Amid the rising tensions over Yemen, Saad Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Saturday, throwing the country into fresh political turmoil. Speaking from Riyadh, Hariri cited Iranian influence across the region for his surprise move, and said he feared that he could be assassinated like his father was in 2005.
Iran denounced Hariri’s resignation as part of a joint Saudi-US plot to destabilise the region. Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Lebanon’s powerful Shia militant group and political movement Hezbollah, said the move was “imposed” on Hariri by Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have denied the claims.
“Less than a year after Saad Hariri re-entered office, his departure raises fears that Lebanon is being dragged anew into the dangerous crosswinds of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry,” wrote Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior Middle East policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, on Tuesday.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over a number of regional conflicts. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies also complain about Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and Syria, though the exact extent of Iranian support for rebel forces in Yemen is unclear.
In Tehran, the tensions were reflected in cartoons and newspaper headlines. “Are we hearing the drums of war?” asked the Iranian daily Jame’e-Farda.
Riyadh was angered when Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, reached a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran in 2015, fearing that the US was tilting the regional power balance towards Tehran. But Trump’s election has reversed that, bringing Washington closer to the Saudis.
Trump is currently trying to convince the Saudis to list its massive state-run oil company, Aramco, which is the biggest energy company in the world, on the New York exchange.
Reacting to the missile launch, Trump said “a shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia … and our system knocked the missile out of the air”.
Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, said: “Mr Trump has said many baseless things and told many lies and frequently falsely accused Iran and this one of those slanders.” He insisted that Iran does “not have even the possibility to transfer missiles to Yemen”.