Vol. 12, No. 9 22 April 2012
- Iran regards Yemen in general, and its Shia northern part in particular, as a springboard for subversion and for creating a tangible threat to Saudi Arabia, its main religious-political rival in the region. Iran also seeks to establish a physical Iranian presence, ground and naval, in the countries and ports of the Red Sea littoral, which control the shipping (and weapon-supply) lanes leading from the Persian Gulf to the heart of the Middle East and to Europe.
- According to U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. has evidence that the Iranians are providing military assistance and trainers to several groups in Yemen, in addition to financial aid and political support. This assistance is conveyed via Lebanese Hizbullah and Hamas. Operatives from southern Yemen in Beirut serve as conduits for the Iranian aid.
- Islamic Iran aspires to superpower status. It is actively involved in the region’s primary crisis centers. These include the “Arab Spring’s” main fronts with the West and the moderate Arab states: Syria, where Iran backs Bashar Assad through thick and thin; Bahrain, where Iran calls for the overthrow of the Royal House and supports the Shia demonstrators; and Yemen, where Iran is active in attempts to create a new order that is not based on support for the West.
- The weakness of the Arab regimes, the lack of an Arab power center since the “Arab Spring” broke out, and the decline of America’s status in the Middle East are bringing Iran closer to its goal. In Yemen, where the interests of regional powers and global jihad intersect, Iran is demonstrating its malign potential and aspirations to regional hegemony. It signals that it will keep trying to shape the Middle East according to its religious ideology and perceptions, and to entrench its status in the region while pushing the older power centers out of it.
- Iran is steadily seeking to add a military nuclear capability as a major component of its strategy of becoming a great power. This capability, according to Tehran, will ensure the Islamic regime’s survival (North Korea being an inspiration in this regard), and will also gain it the status of a regional and international power with a free hand and a defensive umbrella for exporting the Islamic revolution to the Middle East and beyond, while using terror as a foreign-policy tool without fear of any significant response.
Yemen: A Crossroads of Regional and Great-Power Interests
Recent months have seen stepped-up Iranian involvement in Yemen’s political arena, particularly efforts to steer the course of its governmental changes. This intervention, which includes military aid to separatist elements, is causing great concern both in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states and in the United States. These parties are closely monitoring Tehran’s activity in this region, which is not new and has been going on – at varying levels of intensity – for many years.
Iran is exploiting the Yemeni central government’s weak control of the north and south of the country. Iran hopes thereby to expand its influence in the country and thwart the current attempts at conciliation. The “Arab Spring,” the eventual ouster of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Salah after a protracted struggle by the opposition, along with Al-Qaeda’s efforts to take over in the south have encouraged Iran to step up its activities in the region. These factors also jibe with the new offensive strategy that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has announced – namely, responding “with offense to offense.” In the context of Iran’s response to the recent sanctions, the executive arm of Iran’s policy of exporting its revolution – the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF) – now feels both obligated and freer to act in various arenas.
Significantly, Iran is providing most of the aid to the Zaidi-Shia, al-Houthi rebel clan in the Saada province of northern Yemen, adjacent to Saudi Arabia’s sensitive southern border. Tehran views the Zaidi-Shia population1 as a convenient means for exporting the Islamic Revolution, deepening Iran’s political influence, and promoting its regional interests. Iran has also displayed this pattern of subversion, utilizing local Shia populations, in Middle Eastern trouble spots like Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
Amid the “Arab Spring” and the growing polarization between Iran on one side and the pragmatic Sunni Arab states (i.e., Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) and the West on the other, the Middle East is in a process of transformation. Hence Iran’s activity in Yemen assumes even greater regional-strategic importance, beyond the internal Yemeni aspects alone.
Yemen’s strategic location at the gateway to the Red Sea and across from the Horn of Africa, along with the central government’s ongoing weakness, makes the country a strategic target for subversion by external powers, both state and nonstate. Dominant among these are Iran and Saudi Arabia, while Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been greatly stepping up its activity in southern Yemen to the point of threatening to conquer it.
Iran regards Yemen in general, and its Shia northern part in particular, as a springboard for subversion and for creating a tangible threat to Saudi Arabia, its main religious-political rival in the region. Iran also views Yemen as an important locus of its longstanding policy to establish a physical Iranian presence, ground and naval, in the countries and ports of the Red Sea littoral, which control the shipping (and weapon-supply) lanes leading from the Persian Gulf to the heart of the Middle East and to Europe.
Hizbullah and Hamas Active in Yemen as Iranian Proxies
Since the beginning of the year some senior U.S. officials – both military and political – have addressed Iran’s growing activity in Yemen and assistance to the country’s opposition elements.
In an interview to the large-circulation pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, published in London, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein asserted that “Iran is helping the Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen and elements who are interested in dividing up the country with it so as to widen its influence.” Feierstein also highlighted the Islamic Republic’s subversive activity along its rival Saudi Arabia’s tense southern border with Yemen.2
Regarding foreign elements’ involvement in Yemen’s internal affairs, the ambassador said the United States is very concerned about apparent growing Iranian efforts to strengthen its ties with different groups in Yemen, particularly the Houthis, but also with other separatist factions in the south and north of the country; Iran’s aim is thus to undermine the country’s internal stability and prevent a smooth transition of the political order.
According to Feierstein, the United States has evidence that the Iranians are providing military assistance and trainers to several groups in Yemen, in addition to financial aid and political (and propaganda) support. This assistance is conveyed via Lebanese Hizbullah and Hamas. The ambassador added that operatives from southern Yemen in Beirut serve as conduits for the Iranian aid, which is aimed at undermining southern Yemen and preventing it from achieving a political solution.
Feierstein underlined that Iran’s activity in Yemen stems from its desire to deepen its influence over the country’s internal arena and use it as a forward base in the Arabian Peninsula, helping it face the threat that, according to Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states pose to it. “The Iranians want to build influence in Yemen…both internally and more broadly in the region by gaining a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula….It’s something that’s naturally regarded as a security threat to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC states.”
Iran’s Operations Similar to Those of Al-Qaeda
Feierstein’s interview to Al-Hayat was given just before a visit to Yemen by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. With Feltman on the way, and in the framework of Washington and Sana’a’s cooperation in fighting terror in general and Al-Qaeda in particular, Feierstein met with Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansur and other senior officials.3 Feltman, during his visit, said Al-Qaeda and Iran were working to exploit the fragile political situation and spread their influence in the country. “Iran operations are similar to those (of) Al-Qaeda….Iran tries to exploit uncertainty and unhappiness in countries of the region.” Al-Qaeda was also trying to “exploit opportunities where there is political chaos.” Feltman said the United States views “with concern reports of rising Iranian influence in parts of Yemen.”
Iran’s Malign Efforts
In addition, the U.S. head of Central Command, whose area of responsibility (AOR) includes Yemen, referred in his Senate testimony in early March to the negative, destructive role that Iran plays in the region and the danger Iran poses to the security of the United States and of the countries in his AOR:
Additionally, working closely with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S. contributed to the ongoing transition of power in Yemen; however, violence continues to plague that country, some of it fomented by Iran and much of it fomented by AQAP. While transformation is underway across the region as a result of the Arab Awakening, malign efforts by other regional actors – particularly Iran – to influence the ultimate outcome represent perhaps the greatest immediate and long-term threat to regional stability (emphasis added).
Regarding global threats he said:
At the same time, Iran poses the single greatest threat to U.S. interests and to our friends and stability in the region, and poses a global threat through its world-wide proxy network as recent attacks have demonstrated….There is only one state in our AOR actively seeking to destabilize the region and actively fomenting violence – Iran. The combination of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons aspirations, defiance of international obligations and norms, employment of proxies to attack others around the world to include U.S. forces, and regional hegemonic goals make Iran the single greatest threat to regional stability – and to the security of the United States – in the Central region….Iran’s activities are motivated by its hegemonic ambitions, despite its growing regional and international isolation. An Iranian decision to develop nuclear weapons will have a destabilizing effect on the region and could motivate its neighbors to precede with their own nuclear development programs. Iran’s well-established pattern of deceit and reckless behavior has progressively increased the potential for miscalculation, and is the primary catalyst pushing the region toward an arms race or armed conflict (emphasis added).4
The newspaper Al-Sharq also reported that John O. Brennan, deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, and assistant to the president, had conveyed to the Yemeni government a proposal to set up a special intelligence unit whose functions would include monitoring Iran’s activity in the country. The unit would be outfitted by the Gulf states, which also face Iranian threats and subversive activity.5
In mid-March the New York Times reported that Iran was stepping up weapons smuggling via the IRGC-QF, which uses small boats to smuggle Kalashnikov rifles and RPG launchers to the Houthi rebels. According to the report, the United States was able to intercept a telephone conversation between one of the smugglers and an operative, and subsequently the Yemeni and Indian coast guards were able to intercept some weapons shipments. Furthermore, Iran provided the rebels in Yemen with the means to produce explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) of the kind Iran had supplied to the extreme Shia elements in Iraq, which inflicted casualties on coalition forces.6
It should be emphasized that this is a recurrent Iranian modus operandi and is based on the experience Lebanese Hizbullah has accumulated in acting against Israel. Iran also uses Hizbullah instructors, along with IRGC-QF members, to train local operatives in assembling, disguising, and activating the lethal charges. (Iran does so in all its arenas of activity; instructors of this kind having been apprehended in Iraq.)
Mohamed Abd Al-Sallam, chairman of the Abaad Center for Strategic Studies, said Iran had begun increasing its involvement in Yemen concurrently with the intensified anti-Iranian sanctions. He added:
The uprising in Syria and the attempt to remove Iran’s [influence] from the region also compelled Iran to mobilize its distant allies in Bahrain, Yemen and the Horn of Africa.…Iran is presently providing finances and military training to members of the Southern Movement to assist them in achieving secession from the north….Some members of the Southern Movement are being given military training in Beirut and Iran.7
Note also that AQAP expressed concern about the growing, Iranian-aided Shia activity in Yemen specifically and in the Arabian Peninsula generally. In a proclamation published in jihadist forums, the head of AQAP urged Muslims in Saudi Arabia to volunteer for jihad in Yemen so as to “stymie the Shiite project.” The proclamation describes the peninsula’s residents as facing numerous threats, but the greatest of them is the Shia threat in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other states of the peninsula:
I am urgently calling all True Muslim men, from across the Arabian Peninsula, to volunteer for the outpost of Yemen, defending Allah’s Law. America and its followers, from among the remnants of the former regime, as well as some parties entrenched in the US Embassy, declared war on Islamic Law in Aden-Abyan province [southern Yemen]. At this very moment, Iran is mustering its regional followers, from Bahrain to Syria, and from Qatif to Saadah to fight Islam and Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula. True Muslim men! Rush to the battlefield and on the road to Paradise!8
Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, Hussein Amir Abdullahian, said during a visit to Yemen that Iran is not interested in stoking conflicts in the region and hence “is doing everything it can to restore security and stability to Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.” 9 He entirely rejected the Yemeni foreign minister’s charge that Iran was interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs and asserted that the “international community is witnessing constant protests by Yemeni people due to interference of some Western countries in their internal affairs.” 10 He called on the Yemeni government to respond to the will of the Yemeni people with dialogue.
The fighting between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels is not only being waged in northern Yemen’s mountainous region but also on TV screens, satellite channels, news websites, topical forums, and in print journalism. Two main actors in the war for hearts and minds are Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Arabic and English media, which give the events extensive and detailed coverage, are biased in favor of the Shiite rebels and the opposition to the regime while slamming Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government, and the West that supports them, and warning against continued American dominance. For example, the satellite channel Press TV reported in English about the U.S. ambassador’s interview to Al-Hayat, noting at the end of the report that there were growing calls in Yemen for the ambassador’s departure because of his link to the previous government and his desire for “continuation of the dictatorship.”11 Meanwhile the media identified with Saudi Arabia, especially the satellite channel Al Arabiya, which broadcasts from Abu Dhabi with Saudi funding, harshly censured Iran for supporting the Houthi rebels in order to advance its strategic aims, particularly gaining a foothold at the gateway to the Red Sea and on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
Iran’s Arabic-language TV channel Al-Alam devotes many of its “In the Spotlight” programs to the crisis in Yemen, including the government’s struggle against both the Shia tribes in the north and Al-Qaeda in the south, as well as the “Arab Spring” in Yemen that ultimately led to the ouster of Ali Abdullah Salah.
Even before the “Arab Spring,” Iran saw Yemen as a strategic country. Its location in Saudi Arabia’s “backyard,” and in the vicinity of the Red Sea shipping lanes and the ports of the Horn of Africa and Sudan, along with the existence of a Shiite minority in the north of the country (on Saudi Arabia’s southern border), make Yemen an attractive target for Iran.
The spread of the “Arab Spring” toward the Gulf states has stalled for now (Saudi Arabia having sent its Desert Shield force to suppress the Shiite uprising), Saudi Arabia remains stable (apart from reports of Iran inciting Shiite riots in the oil-rich Eastern Province), and so do the other Gulf states. In this context Iran views Yemen, torn by tribal wars and Al-Qaeda activity, as ripe for expanding its own long-term influence while foiling the new government’s attempts to achieve, with U.S. and Western help, an orderly power transfer and wage the campaign against Al-Qaeda, which seeks to entrench itself in southern Yemen.
Here, too, the Shia minority acts as an anchor for Iran’s activity, mainly conducted via the IRGC-QF and Hizbullah. Iran behaves this way wherever there is a Shiite population; it recruits activists, trains them (in Iran and in Lebanon), and returns them to the field. Iran also exploits the extensive experience Hizbullah has gained against the IDF and tries to replicate the model of success in other arenas, as it did in Iraq. This is seen, for instance, in the use of EFPs against Yemeni army patrols.
The religious-political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is likely only to intensify with time, and Iran has a great interest in cementing the Shia hold on northern Yemen in order to create a threat and instability in a region that greatly concerns Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Yemen is seen as part of an emerging Shia ring of encirclement in Saudi Arabia’s vicinity. The Shia religious dimension (which was not part of the Shah’s vision of regional influence) is of great importance for Iran’s activity against Yemen and other Shiite-minority or -majority states, and complements the national-strategic component of Iran’s drive for influence in Sunni areas.
Islamic Iran aspires to great-power status. Its leadership claims emphatically that Iran is ripe for such influence and has already attained it, and that the region’s conflicts cannot be resolved without its involvement. Iran is, indeed, actively involved in the region’s primary crisis centers. These include the “Arab Spring’s” main fronts with the West and the moderate Arab states: Syria, where Iran backs Bashar Assad through thick and thin; Bahrain, where Iran calls for the overthrow of the Royal House and supports the Shia demonstrators; and Yemen, where Iran is active in attempts to create a new order that is not based on support for the West.
Iran’s growing involvement in Yemen in recent weeks, which senior U.S. military and political officials have harshly denounced, is also part of the practical application of the “offensive doctrine” that Khamenei launched in response to growing international pressure.
This doctrine is also applied in other domains such as terror attacks on foreign soil; stepped-up assistance to the regime in Damascus to help it survive (while coordinating positions with Russia and China); stopping oil sales to EU countries; sharpening the rhetoric against the Saudi and Bahraini royal houses (the Shiites in Bahrain having recently escalated their campaign against the regime with possible Iranian involvement); an unusual visit by Ahmadinejad to the island of Abu Musa, which is disputed between Iran and the UAE; and many proclamations about Iran’s ability to “crush” any attack against it – Israeli and/or American.
The weakness of the Arab regimes, the lack of an Arab power center since the “Arab Spring” broke out, and the decline of America’s status in the Middle East bring Iran closer to its goal. The Gulf states increasingly fear Iran’s lengthening shadow and growing activity in the sensitive Shiite centers, along with its threats to block the Strait of Hormuz. Senior U.S. officials are aware of these concerns, and this may be what has led Washington to point directly to Iran’s involvement in Yemen.
To Iran’s inherent strengths – a large, strategically located territory that overlooks the global oil- and gas-supply routes, natural oil and gas resources, and military power (at least on a regional scale) – can be added the Shia religious factor, which adds a special dimension to the threat that Iran’s strategic aspirations pose to the Gulf states and beyond, and of course to Western interests in the Gulf.
Iran is steadily seeking to add a military nuclear capability as a major component of its strategy of becoming a great power. This capability, according to Tehran, will ensure the Islamic regime’s survival (North Korea being an inspiration in this regard), and will also gain it the status of an international power with a free hand and a defensive umbrella for exporting the revolution to the Middle East and beyond, while using terror as a foreign-policy tool without fear of any significant response.
In sum, Iran is already acting and behaving as a de facto regional power. If it so chooses, it has the ability to influence – generally negatively – most of the flashpoints and ongoing crises as well as the direction of the “Arab Spring,” which Iran paints in fiercely Islamic colors.
In Yemen, where the interests of regional powers and global jihad intersect, Iran demonstrates its malign potential and aspirations to regional hegemony. It signals that it will keep trying to shape the Middle East according to its religious ideology and perceptions, and to entrench its status in the region while pushing the older power centers out of it.
1. The Houthi rebels belong to the Zaidi Shia, one of the moderate schools of Shia, close in practice to the Shafi’i school of Sunna. Its name is derived from Zaid, one of the descendants of the Imam Ali, who claimed the rights of the sons of Ali from the Umayyad caliphs and paid for this with his life in the year 740 CE. About 30 percent of the residents of Yemen (including former president Ali Abdullah Salah) belong to this school. The rest of the Yemeni population is mainly composed of Sunni Muslims (50-60 percent), and there are small groups of Christians, Hindus, and even a tiny Jewish minority.