Yemen and Iran

The words "Iranian-backed" and "Houthi" are now coupled together in virtually every media report about the conflict in Yemen. Nobody – least of all, the Iranians – would deny that Iran supports the Houthis. But how extensive is that support and what forms does it take?

Where some kinds of support are concerned, Iran makes no attempt at disguise, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in report last week:

"Since a Houthi delegation visited Tehran in March, Iranian support has become more vocal, promising economic aid that includes expanding ports, building power plants and providing fuel."

But while "Iranian-backed" can be a factually accurate description (at least up to a point), it is also being used emotively to muster support for the Arab military intervention in Yemen. In their scaremongering about Iran, the Saudis in particular are now singing from Netanyahu's song sheet. Writing in the New York Times, for example, Saudi propagandist Nawaf Obeid holds Iran – rather than the Saudi government – responsible for most of the kingdom's ills. The Saudi leadership faces a number of issues," he writes, "but most of them stem from Iranian aggressiveness."

Some Saudis go so far as to assert that the conflict in Yemen is not about Yemen at all. Saudi Arabia needs to have a war with Iran, one of them coldly informed me last week – so it's better to have the war on Yemeni soil than Saudi soil.

In the midst of all this, claims about Iranian involvement have a receptive audience and often pass unchallenged. The New York Times reports:

"Saudi officials argue that Iran has orchestrated the Houthi military advance so they can exert influence on yet another Middle Eastern capital and destabilise Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Adel al Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, told reporters Thursday that there was evidence that Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives and Hezbollah fighters had embedded with the Houthis."

Now it may be true that members of Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard are "embedded" in Yemen. Or it may not. Until the Saudis produce the evidence they claim to possess, we only have their word for it.

Iranian involvement in Yemen also has to be judged alongside the involvement of other players. In that regard, Saudi Arabia's meddling in Yemen, over a long period, has been – and still is – far more persistent and pervasive than that of any other country, including Iran. The recent ICG report also points out that the beleaguered Yemeni president (or perhaps ex-president now) Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his allies are more dependent on Riyadh than the Houthis are on Tehran.

Furthermore, in terms of fighting on the ground, Iran is not the Houthis' most important ally; former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is. Without the support of Saleh and his forces, the Houthis would never have been able to take over so much of the country. The Saudis have tacitly acknowledged this in their targeting of airstrikes, since many have been directed against Saleh's forces and included attacks on Sanhan, Saleh's home district.

The Saudis have "overestimated what the Iranian role in all of this is", Barbara Bodine, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said in a recent radio interview. "The Iranian involvement is very new. Exactly how strong it is in terms of materiel is unclear," she continued, but added that Iran's "fundamental deep interest in Yemen is marginal".

In the current hothouse atmosphere, however, questioning whether Iran's actual involvement in Yemen justifies the hype is liable to be viewed as heresy or a sign of support for Iran. The worrying thing about this is that few of the claims are based on independent evidence and the unquestioning way they are lapped up and regurgitated is very reminiscent of the propaganda surrounding Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the 2003 war.

Regarding specific claims, a Reuters report from last December, citing various officials, said "Iran has supplied weapons, money and training to the Shi'ite Houthi militia," though it adds: "Exactly how much support Iran has given the Houthis ... has never been clear."

The report continued:

A senior Yemeni security official said Iran had steadily supported the Houthis, who have fought the central government since 2004 from their northern stronghold of Saadah.

“Before the entrance into Sanaa, Iran started sending weapons here and gave a lot of support with money via visits abroad,” the official, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters.

A second senior Yemeni security official said “weapons are still coming in by sea and there’s money coming in through transfers”.

Reuters went on to quote "a western source familiar with Yemen" who also said the Houthis had been getting training and money:

“It’s been happening for over a year. We’ve seen Houthis going out to Iran and Lebanon for military training.

“We think there is cash, some of which is channelled via Hezbollah and sacks of cash arriving at the airport. The numbers of those going for training are enough for us to worry about,” the source said. 

Although the Houthis denied this, the claim was at least partly supported by an Iranian source:

A senior Iranian official told Reuters that the Quds Force, the external arm of the Revolutionary Guard, had a “few hundred” military personnel in Yemen who train Houthi fighters.

He said about 100 Houthis had travelled to Iran this year for training at a Revolutionary Guards base near the city of Qom. It was not immediately possible to verify this claim.

The official said there were a dozen Iranian military advisers in Yemen, and the pace of money and arms getting to the Houthis had increased since their seizure of Sanaa.

“Everything is about the balance of power in the region. Iran wants a powerful Shi’ite presence in the region that is why it has got involved in Yemen as well,” said the Iranian official.

So there does seem to be a consensus that some Iranians are present on the ground in Yemen, though nobody appears to be claiming that their numbers are particularly large.

A few suspected members of Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard have been arrested in Yemen – and later released. At least three Iranians were freed last September, apparently as a result of Omani mediation. Two suspected Hezbollah members were released around the same time. A Yemeni official told Reuters the Hezbollah suspects had been held for two to three years in the city of Aden where they had been captured on suspicion of planning to provide military training to the Houthis. Why they were released is unclear, though it may have been a move to appease the Houthis. 

There have been several publicised cases where alleged arms shipments to the Houthis have been intercepted at sea – one in 2009 and two others in 2013 involving vessels known as Jihan I and Jihan II.

The 2009 interception of an Iranian vessel reportedly took place in the Red Sea, off the far north-western coast of Yemen. The Yemeni government said it was laden with weapons, "mostly anti-tank shells", which were being delivered to the Houthis. Very little information was made public. The Iranians claimed the vessel was empty and had been heading for the Caspian Sea after repairs in the UAE.

In January 2013, an Iranian vessel, Jihan I, was reportedly intercepted in Yemen's territorial waters in a joint operation by the Yemeni coastguard and the US Navy (here is an Israeli account). The following March, a second vessel, named as Jihan II, was also said to have been seized (reports here and here).

subsequent report for the UN Security Council by a panel of experts left very little doubt that the weapons on board Jihan I were indeed being smuggled from Iran, in violation of UN sanctions. It was less clear, though, that they were really intended for the Houthis. In July 2013, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea produced a confidential report (which was seen by Reuters) suggesting that diesel found in the cargo aboardJihan I could have been destined for al-Shabab militants in Somalia rather than the Houthis in Yemen. 

According to Reuters, the UN report "did not explicitly say that weapons on the ship were headed for Somalia, but one UN Security Council diplomat said that if it was true that the diesel was intended for Somalia, it could not be ruled out that other items on the ship, including weapons, might also have been intended for there".

Reuters added:

"A western diplomat said that the fact that there were 16,716 blocks of C4 explosive on the Jihan I suggested a potential connection between Iran and al-Shabab in Somalia, as Houthi rebels, unlike al-Shabab, were not known to use C4."

Although it's possible that Iran is supplying the Houthis with weapons, there is a lack of solid evidence to support such claims and other factors suggest they should be treated with caution.

The Houthis are by no means the only potential customer for weapons in Yemen. In 2009, for example, a "Chinese arms ship" was discovered at Hodeida port but the Houthis were not the suspected recipients. The cargo was initially said to be supported by forged defence ministry paperwork but the Chinese importer claimed the paperwork was genuine (implying corruption in the defence ministry).

Yemen is, of course, already rife with weapons and the most prominent illegal arms supplier inside the country is Faris Mana'a who – interestingly – once headed a committee mediating between the Houthis and the Yemeni government.

It's likely, therefore, that the Houthis don't have much need to import weapons directly from Iran. Most if not all of their needs can probably be met locally, by buying them (perhaps with Iranian money) or stealing them. According to the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, when the Houthis established control over Sana'a last September they were using arms "seized from government military bases".

One possible interpretation of Iran's behaviour is that while it is certainly stirring things in Yemen it is doing so on the cheap, perhaps as a diversionary tactic. In the words of former US ambassador Barbara Bodine:

"I think the Iranian interest in this is that the Saudis, as we know, are very much involved in trying to unseat Assad, who is extraordinarily important to Iran, and Iran coming in [to Yemen] and providing support to fellow Shia is a way of distracting the Saudis – and in that sense the Iranians have been terribly successful because we have reports of 150,000 Saudi troops on the border, large numbers of aircraft and ships and everything being pulled into Yemen. 

"Everything that's being pulled into Yemen [by the Saudis, etc] is not being focused on Syria or, for that matter, ISIL. So, as an Iranian gambit to pull the Saudis away from what they consider more important, it was a very good gambit."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 30 March 2015