Senior Iranian figures are gloating at the successes of Houthi militants in Yemen who have deposed the country’s president and tipped the country towards civil war.
Prominent Tehran MP Ali Riza Zakani, a confidant of the Supreme Leader, bragged that Sanaa would be the “fourth Arab capital” to fall into Iran’s hands – after Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. Zamani predicted that the “Yemen revolution” would extend into Saudi Arabia.
It is clear from statements by leading Iranians that they consider these “victories” as a triumph for Iran. In reality, by exploiting the Houthi minority as a proxy army, Iran’s actions have created a state of anarchy that could displace millions Yemenis and create a new regional crisis that even Iran will find itself unable to benefit from.
Why are the US and others downplaying the significance of Iran’s role in destabilizing a strategically-located state in the Arabian Peninsula; despite the obvious pride that Iran’s leaders clearly feel in having engineered a war on Saudi Arabia’s southern doorstep?
The advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, was categorical about Iranian support for the Houthis. Velayati stated that he hoped the Houthis played “the same role in Yemen” as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hardline media outlets close to the Supreme Leader like Kayhan described the Houthis as an extension of Iran’s Islamic revolution.
“Iran and Lebanon are directly supporting the Houthis;” proclaimed Ali Shirazi, a senior Qods Force official and representative to the Supreme Leader. Shirazi stressed the close parallels between the Houthis and other Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon.
This attitude of those around the Supreme Leader shows that this invasion-by-proxy amounts to an attempt to annex Yemen under the effective control of Iran.
Western, Yemeni and regional intelligence forces have warned over the last three years about evidence of substantial quantities of weapons being sent from Iran to the Houthis and other separatist groups. Shipments of arms have been intercepted, with smaller boats transporting AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives. Iranian officials have boasted to Reuters about the military support given to the Houthis, saying that Iran had believed it could achieve a quick victory “without too much expense”. Yemeni militia leaders like Sultan al-Samie say they welcome such military support from Iran.
We see this renewed Iranian confidence in statements by Iranian writer Mohammed Sadeq Hosseini – also close to the Supreme Leader – who proclaimed on pro-Iran Al-Mayadin TV: “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”.
Some naïve Western commentators have suggested that the Houthis be used as a counterbalance to Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In reality, it is the security vacuum that the Iran-backed Houthis have exacerbated that has allowed Al-Qaeda to consolidate its position.
The Houthis are a minority sect usually confined to the extreme northwest of the country. They have no legitimacy or powerbase across the rest of the Sunni-majority country which they cannot hope to control in the long term. Anything that encourages the Houthis to consolidate their grip will only further destabilize Yemen – this would surely be a gift to Al-Qaeda.
When we look at the regional picture, Iran’s desire to aggressively dominate as many Arab states as possible – through arming militants, funding Shia entities, and forcing its foreign policy agenda – becomes obvious. Iranian leaders are now boasting how successful they believe they have been in this.
The results of this aggression are everywhere to be seen: Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians and created the vacuum that allowed ISIS to emerge. In Iraq Iran’s Shia militias are responsible for massacres of dozens of Sunnis and systematic attacks on Sunni villages in an approach that looks suspiciously like ethnic cleansing. In Bahrain, Iranian explosives continue to kill policemen. In Yemen the humanitarian catastrophe is only just beginning as the state disintegrates before our eyes.
President Obama’s belief that he can do business with the “moderate” elements of Iran’s political system, embodied in the dovish President Rouhani is undermined by the fact that Iran’s regional foreign policy – under the control of the Supreme Leader – grows more aggressive and threatening by the day.