U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s April 6, 2016, visit to Bahrain focused on Iran’s involvement in the Gulf States’ and Yemen’s affairs. Kerry met with the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, with his Bahraini counterpart, and with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). During his meeting with the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, Kerry revealed that the U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose headquarters are in Bahrain, and other international forces operating in the region had recently intercepted four ships ferrying weapons from Iran to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.2 Kerry asserted, “We will continue to push back against this kind of provocation in the region.”3 Jubeir again slammed Iran’s involvement in Yemen, interference in the affairs of other states in the region, and ongoing attempts to smuggle weapons into these countries.
During Kerry’s meeting with his Bahraini counterpart, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, he said that, while Iran had indeed contributed to resolving the Syrian crisis, many of the issues concerning Iran were still current: “Clearly, the challenge of Yemen, the challenge of activities that are disruptive here in Bahrain, the challenge of activities that are disruptive in Syria, remain a challenge.” Al Khalifa, for his part, noted that Iran’s “missile program is moving forward with full support from the top of the leadership of the Islamic Republic, and we are seeing the hegemonic interventions through proxies in several parts of our region continuing unabated without even heeding to [sic] their responsibilities of rules of good neighborliness.”4
After the nuclear agreement was signed on July 14, 2015, the Gulf States felt all the more threatened by Iran and concerned that the support the United States had given them previously was eroding. Iran, for its part, particularly by means of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), stepped up its involvement in Yemen, making use of Lebanese Hizbullah among others. It also continues its clandestine and intelligence activity in the Gulf States. Some of this is carried out by Lebanese Hizbullah, which, despite its deep involvement in the Syrian crisis, keeps contributing to Iran’s subversion efforts in other arenas.
Judging by the harsh, threatening declarations of IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari during the IRGC Commanders Supreme Council in Tehran on April 5, the Gulf States’ leaders have good reason to worry. Jafari again ridiculed these leaders for “stupid behavior” in trying to stand with the United States against Iran. “At present, Arab states [kingdoms] like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and other states in the Persian Gulf are the epitome of lack of political development, and the IRGC has already taken measures to deal with their loutishness and stupidity, which stem from their reliance on the United States… We await an order from the Leader.”
Regarding the campaign in Yemen, which continues despite the attempts to forge a stable ceasefire, Jafari said the Arabs would rise up against their governments to avenge their attacks on the Houthis. He stressed that Iran’s support for the Houthis, like its support for its allies in “Palestine,” would continue; so would Iran’s efforts on behalf of the territorial integrity of Syria and the other Muslim countries. For his part, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted on September 9, 2015, that the viewers of his site, when asked to choose his most significant remark over the past year (the Iranian year ended on March 20), chose his assertion that in another 25 years Israel would cease to exist.5
Jafari made clear that, while the IRGC continues to defend the Iranian regime and promote its objectives internally, the IRGC also reacts to external circumstances to adapt to the goals of the revolution. The third stage of the revolution, he said, is progressing, and the IRGC forces (in different arenas) are working to accomplish those objectives. “The Iranian Revolution has become a huge force that is expanding beyond Iran’s borders to become an effective regional force.”6
Over the past few months Jafari’s assertions have been borne out. As Kerry emphasized, Iran has sent numerous weapons consignments to the Houthis in Yemen. These have included AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, PKM general-purpose machineguns, PKM spare barrels, and 60-mm mortar tubes.7 The many seizures of weapons (apparently not all the shipments have been intercepted) by foreign naval forces operating in the region indicate that the West is conducting close intelligence surveillance of Iran’s activity. The West thereby seeks to calm the Gulf States and particularly Saudi Arabia as its battles the Houthi rebels on its southern border with Yemen. The rebels have sometimes fired rockets and even SCUD missiles into Saudi territory and are also trying to hit sensitive oil facilities.
In March 2016, the Lebanese and Gulf media reported that Hizbullah missile and rocket experts were training and assisting the Houthi rebels with precision barrages at Saudi territory and force concentrations of the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen. Some of the rockets are locally produced.
According to media claims, senior officers of Hizbullah rocket and missiles units in Yemen had been killed.8, 9 The Hizbullah-affiliated media in Lebanon announced the deaths of the operatives in the missile units but did not give details on their roles, stating only that they had “fulfilled their holy jihadist duty against the Wahabi infidel mercenaries.10, 11 In addition, Iran keeps funneling advanced antitank weapons to the Houthis with which to hit tanks of the Saudis and their coalition in Yemen.12
Although Iranian conservatives and the IRGC may have lost their “no negotiations” battle over the nuclear deal, they are determined to show that they are still guided by the values of the revolution and the imperative to take it to its next stages. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani continues to be the IRGC’s nemesis, and remains influential despite their ongoing efforts to counteract him. His March 23, 2016, tweet (which was subsequently deleted) that “The world belongs to dialogue and not to missiles” was harshly criticized by Khamenei, who responded on Twitter: “That some inside say tomorrow world is of negotiation, not world of missiles, if said unwarily, it’s unawareness; otherwise it’s treason.” Khamenei added: “Islamic Republic must use all means. I support political talks in global issues, but not with everyone. Today is era of both missile & talk.”14
To validate the Leader’s words and weaken the camp of President Hassan Rouhani and Rafsanjani and those who, with an eye to Iran’s June 2017 elections, are trying hard to translate the nuclear agreement into economic and political achievements, the IRGC’s missile command has increased the pace of its missile experiments.
In addition, Iran’s ongoing subversive activity in assisting Lebanese Hizbullah in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and other places is intended to signal, as the IRGC commander made clear, that Iran will keep working to export the Iranian revolution to the changing region, with the aim of making it supportive of Iran and part of its sphere of influence. In this context, Iran’s supply of missiles and rockets to the Houthis in Yemen, Lebanese Hizbullah, and the Palestinian terror organizations is of great importance. It enables the IRGC to keep developing the missile and rocket industry and to test its products in different military theaters and thereby upgrade them. Such activity is also a way of taunting Rouhani and Rafsanjani.
Standing against this trend is Saudi Arabia, which continues to draw blood in Yemen and to pay large sums for the ongoing campaign in Syria – two arenas where Iran is heavily involved. Saudi Arabia is trying to enhance cooperation within the Sunni coalition, as seen in King Salman’s April 2016, visit to Egypt and the tightening of ties with Turkey. The Saudis are thus trying to forge an effective blocking coalition against Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to struggle, both directly and through proxies, over territory and influence with the aim of shaping the Middle East, which has been undergoing dramatic changes since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed 100 years ago.
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