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In September, shortly before the expiration of the U.N.-backed truce in Yemen, the Houthi rebels held a military parade in Sanaa to mark the eighth anniversary of their capturing the city. The next day, Iran’s armed forces staged their own parade in Tehran to commemorate the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Both parades featured missiles that were billed as new but in fact were not new at all. The Houthis showed off several missile types that were exact copies of existing Iranian ones, while Iran unveiled a missile that the Houthis have previously claimed as their own.
The parades offer two takeaways. First, Iran appears increasingly willing to supply the Houthis with its most advanced missiles and to run greater risks in doing so.
Second, the parades illustrated that the benefits of Iran’s proliferation of weapons to its non-state partners run both ways: arming the Houthis allows Iran to use the conflict in Yemen as a real-world test bed for newer systems that, if they pass muster, may then be adopted by Iran’s own armed forces.
New Houthi Hardware
The Houthis paraded numerous systems that they had never publicly unveiled before, and all are very likely Iranian in origin. Most surprising was the appearance of three kinds of solid-fueled missiles in the parade. The first was the Karar, which appears to be identical to the Iranian Fateh-110 solid-fueled ballistic missile.
Top: The Houthi Karar. Bottom: The Iranian Fateh-110 (image flipped horizontally for better comparison).
Top: The Houthi Aasif. Bottom: The Iranian Khalij Fars (image flipped horizontally for better comparison).
The third was the Hatem, apparently a copy of the Kheibar Shekan, a solid-fueled ballistic missile with a claimed range of 1,450 km. The Kheibar Shekan was first unveiled in Iran earlier in 2022, making it one of the newest missiles in the Iranian arsenal.
Top: The Houthi Hatem. Bottom: The Iranian Kheibar Shekan.
The Houthis also revealed a new liquid-fueled ballistic missile, the Faleq. The group already possesses several versions of modified Iranian-made liquid-fueled Qiam missiles, which they have dubbed Burkan-2H, Burkan-3, and Zulfiqar. The Faleq appears to be an exact copy of what some independent analysts have called the Qiam-2, which is differentiated from the original Qiam by its detachable, finned re-entry vehicle for improved precision. In other words, the Faleq is an upgrade that tracks the latest technology of Iran’s liquid-fueled short-range ballistic missiles.
Top left: Quds-3. Top right: Saqr. Bottom: Faleq.
Two less surprising missiles in the parade were the Quds-3 land attack cruise missile and the Saqr-1 surface-to-air missile. Both the Quds (designated “351” by the United States) and the Saqr (designated the “358” by the United States) have been captured by Western navies during interdictions of arms shipments bound for Yemen. The Quds-3 appeared identical to earlier variants, the Quds-1 and Quds-2, which have been used in multiple attacks against Saudi civilian targets, including a pair of attacks against Abha international airport in June and August 2019. The Saqr-1 has been seen in Iraq, and a modified version of it has reportedly been used by Iran-backed groups to attack ground targets in Syria, but this was the first time the Houthis had displayed it.
An Evolving Approach?
The parade suggests that Iran may be changing course in its military support for the Houthis in two ways. First, whereas before Iran mostly supplied the Houthis with older, simpler, and cheaper weapons, the appearance of the Faleq and the Hatem suggests Iran is increasingly willing to share its most advanced missile technologies with the non-state group. Prior to the September parade, Iran was not known to have given the Houthis missiles with terminal guidance or maneuverable re-entry vehicles.
Second, the parade points to a potential shift in Iran’s methods of providing weapons to its partners in the region. Until now, Iran has equipped its allies for local production of simpler systems, such as small-diameter solid-propellant artillery rockets, while smuggling disassembled Iranian stocks of the more complex systems. This seemingly precluded the transfer of large solid-propellant missiles, since they could be neither produced locally nor easily broken down into pieces for smuggling.
The appearance of such missiles in the parade indicates either that Iran is willing to run the risk of shipping large solid-propellant missiles over long distances, or, less likely, that it has begun expanding the Houthis’ local production capabilities beyond small artillery rockets. The U.S. Navy’s recent seizure of more than 70 tons of ammonium perchlorate, a main ingredient in solid propellants, bound for Yemen lends some credibility to the latter possibility, though the Houthis would also need a production facility with large, sophisticated equipment to manufacture the missiles locally. In either case, to make the missiles useable, Iran would also need to transfer specialized launching equipment.
An Iranian Missile Comes Full Circle
During the parade in Tehran, Iran’s armed forces unveiled for the first time a missile they called the Rezvan, a liquid-fueled ballistic missile with a claimed range of 1,400 km. While the missile may be “new” to the Iranian military, it has been in the Houthi arsenal since 2019 in the form of the Burkan-3, which the Houthis later began calling the Zulfiqar.
Top: The Houthi Zulfiqar. Bottom: The Iranian Rezvan.
In fact, the Houthis originally obtained the missile from Iran, but Iran had built this customized version of the Qiam specifically for the non-state group, and there was no evidence Iran had ever deployed it at home.
The appearance in the parade of a missile originally built for the Houthis is surprising. Iran has been working to improve the precision of its missiles for more than a decade, and the Houthi Zulfiqar, with its poor accuracy at higher ranges, would be a step backwards in that regard. Nor is Iran wanting for missiles that can reach ranges of 1,400 km.
Nevertheless, the Iranian armed forces may find a use for it. Although it would be the first case of a ballistic missile tailor-made for a non-state group finding its way back to the Iranian arsenal, there are other weapons that have followed a similar pattern. The Quds cruise missile, for example, was probably first used by the Houthis in June 2019, months before the September 2019 attack against Saudi Aramco facilities, which the United States believes was launched by Iran. Iran has not formally acknowledged the Quds’s adoption by its armed forces, however. Additionally, some evidence suggests that the IRGC developed and adopted the Shahed-136 kamikaze drone following the transfer of the smaller, more primitive Shahed-131 to non-state partners.
Another, often-overlooked benefit for Iran of transferring weapons to non-state groups is that those groups are more willing to use them in combat, and that allows Iran to collect information about the weapons’ performance. This can inform the development of new systems and variants—or even lead to Iran’s incorporation of the weapon into its own arsenal.