Iran and the Yemeni rebels

The question of Iranian involvement in the Yemeni war is often raised, though with scant evidence to support the various claims. The Houthi rebels who have been fighting the government off and on for the last five years. are Shia Muslims and, even though their Zaidi version of Shi'ism differs from mainstream Iranian Shi'ism, there is evident sympathy for them in Iran.

But how far does this go in practical terms, beyond sympathy and expressions of support in the Iranian media?

President Salih has been careful not to point a finger at the Iranian regime but in a TV interview reported yesterday he said the rebels were receiving funds from Iran: "Their finances come from certain Iranian dignatories ... but we do not accuse the government." As usual, he gave no further details but cited documents that have been seized and confessions from captured rebels. How extensive such financial support might be remains to be seen.

Salih also said that the rebels appear to have gone through combat training similar to that of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia in Lebanon.

Last week the Yemen Observer cited military sources as saying that three Lebanese explosives experts had been killed in the fighting, while working for the Houthi rebels.

In August, the government announced that weapons captured from the rebels included “some” that were made in Iran, including machine guns, short-range rockets and ammunition. However, the number of weapons involved was not disclosed so the significance of this find remains unclear. In general, though, the rebels seem to be purchasing their arms on the open market through various local traffickers – which of course doesn't excluded the possibility they are using money from Iran to pay for them.

Taken together, these bits of evidence add up to more than nothing but perhaps not very much. People will obviously draw from them whatever conclusions they want to draw. For myself, based on what we know so far, I can't see a serious commitment by the Iranian government to supporting the rebels, though it may – like the Saudis on the other side – have a tentative finger in the pie.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 October 2009.