“We are the new sultans of the Red Sea; we the new sultans of the Gulf. We, the axis of resistance: Tehran, Damascus, southern Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa. We are the ones who will create the map of the region and we are also the sultans of the Red Sea” – Iranianwriter Mohammed Sadeq Hosseini
Clashes are raging in Yemen as Houthi rebels extend their control. Iran’s role in supporting these Shia insurgents is often referred to. But what evidence exists for the claim that Iran is seeking to gain power on Saudi Arabia’s southern border through its Yemeni proxies?
When we look at Iran’s role in a number of countries in the region – like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain – a pattern becomes clear of military support for Shia militias and coordinated attempts to aggressively extend Iran’s influence and neutralize its enemies.
It is difficult to understand how a small and marginalized sect like the Houthis can suddenly overrun most of Yemen, without having received massive support from outside sources.
Iranian officials boast about taking control in Yemen
The prominent Tehran MP Ali Riza Zakani bragged that Sanaa would be the “fourth Arab capital” to fall into Iran’s hands.
Zakani, who is close to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, said: “Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian revolution”, adding that Sanaahad become the “fourth Arab capital that is on its way to joining the Iranian revolution”.
Zakani said the “Yemeni revolution to be a natural extension of the Iranian revolution” and predicted that 14 out of 20 Yemeni provinces will come under the control of the Houthis. He said: The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone. It will extend, following its success, into Saudi territories. The Yemeni-Saudi vast borders will help accelerate its reach into the depths of Saudi land.”
Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei said: The Houthis are engaged in a “righteous fight.” Velayati added that he hoped the Houthis played “the same role in Yemen” as Hezbollah does in Lebanon. (October 18 2014)
Shipments of arms
Large shipments of weapons have been intercepted off the Yemeni coast coming from Iran, including a major shipment in January 2013. US officials confirm that Iranian shipments of arms have been tracked heading to Yemen. US intelligence sources said that Iranian smugglers backed by the Quds Force were using small boats to ship AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other arms. Some of these shipments had been impounded by regional customs officials.
Intelligence sources, corroborated by Yemeni sources also testify to materials for explosive devices being seized on route to the Houthis, once again being smuggled by Iranian personnel.
A senior Iranian official told Reuters: “Before the entrance into Sanaa, Iran started sending weapons here and gave a lot of support with money via visits abroad.” The official added in his comments to Reuters that Iran expected victory to be swift in Yemen, unlike in Iraq and Syria, and “with not too much expense”.
Training and funds through Hezbollah
A senior Western official told Reuters that the Houthis had been getting training and money from Iran: “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 channeled 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.
A senior Iranian official that the Iran’s Quds Force had a “few hundred” military personnel in Yemen who trained Houthi fighters.
A Yemeni security official said “weapons are still coming in by sea and there’s money coming in through transfers”. Other Yemeni security officials have told the media that said Houthi fighters had received training by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Statements from Yemen’s leadership
President Hadi in September told the media: “The Yemeni security forces have detained fivemembers of Hezbollah who were providing assistance to the Houthis”.
The Yemeni Foreign Minister has stated that leading members of the separatist fighters from the south were “living in Beirut under Hezbollah’s protection”.
Senior Yemeni officials say they are in possession of substantial amounts of evidence demonstrating the Iranian role. Yemeni sources have also claimed that Yemeni insurgents have been trained by Republican Guard and Hezbollah personnel in Eritrea.
Significant quotes concerning Iran’s role in Yemen
“We have been treated unjustly by Saudi Arabia, and we do not mind taking help from Iran, which has been sympathetic to our cause” – Yemeni militia leader Sultan al-Samie
“Iran is interfering most recently and dramatically” in Yemen with its “inherently sectarian” policies – UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash (October 2014)
“The Houthi takeover of Yemen means absolutely everything to Iran. They are watching events unfold there like an investor watching his investments return hefty dividends… Iranian officials could hardly contain themselves during the first days following the Houthi seizure of Sanaa in late September. They openly boasted that Sanaa had fallen into their sphere of influence and eagerly announced that they support the Houthis.” Oren Adaki, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Washington
“It’s reasonable to assume that there’s definitely some level of Iranian support and influence and guidance” for the Houthis – Danya Greenfield; Yemen specialist, Atlantic Council, Washington.
“We are the new sultans of the Red Sea; we the new sultans of the gulf. We, the axis of resistance: Tehran, Damascus, southern Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa. We are the ones who will create the map of the region and we are also the sultans of the Red Sea” – Well-connected Iranian writer and analyst Mohammed Sadeq Hosseini interviewed on Al-Mayadeen TV
“In Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Iran works behind the scenes to undermine those governments through the Shia communities… Yemen could serve as a potentially friendly base of operations in Iran’s rivalry against Saudi Arabia” – Martin Reardon, Soufan Group, New York