Iran’s involvement in Yemen should be framed as part of its expansionist agenda in the Middle East region and larger proxy war with Saudi Arabia.
Matters came to a head as a result of the Houthi’s seizure of the country’s capital Sana’a in September 2014. In March of 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began an air and ground campaign against the Houthi. Over two years later, the war has entered a stalemate, with Yemen’s civilian population now suffering through one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The Yemeni government has demanded that the United Nations designate the Houthis as a terror group. The Shiite insurgents, backed by Iran, are linked to numerous human rights abuses and attacks on civilians during the ongoing conflict in Yemen, including an attack on an Emirati civilian ship in October 2016, ongoing use of child soldiers, and the shelling of civilian areas.
The United States Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, has repeatedly said Iran sends arms into Yemen. From September 2015 through March 2016, they intercepted four Iranian smuggling vessels that yielded in total more 5000 AK-47 rifles, 80 antitank guided missiles as well as machine guns and sniper rifles, according to data released by the U.S. Navy.
Although far from the only factor, the Saudi operation was in part provoked by what it perceived to be the dangers of the then still in progress nuclear agreement between the Iran and the West, and the associated risk of the increasing regional influence of Tehran. Less than subtle attempts by the Obama administration to distance itself from Saudi Arabia – perhaps in an attempt to fully reconcile with Iran – instilled further concerns in Riyadh.
Joshua S. Block, CEO and President of The Israel Project, explained that “The flawed nuclear deal gave Iran’s terror-sponsoring regime over $100 billion in sanctions relief, which the Islamic Republic is using to finance its aggressive campaign across the Middle East, in an attempt to build not just a Shia crescent, but a Shia full moon.” Block added that after bringing large parts of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq under its control, the regime in Tehran was now targeting Yemen “to cement its power on the Arabian Peninsula.”
Block said Iran had shipped weapons to the Houthi rebels that previously were not part of Yemen’s depleted stockpile. “It is not rocket science,” he said, “that the Houthis are not only getting these systems from Iran, but also training and advice in how to use them against the international coalition.”
To an extent, Iran’s involvement in the Yemen war has so far been a case of unfulfilled ambition. Unable to easily access the country by air or sea due to the Saudi-led blockade, Tehran has been limited to smuggling.
However, recent reports suggest that military aid attempts are once again being stepped up, with General Qasem Soleimani active in this effort and Iranian-sponsored advisors being deployed to the country. Smuggling efforts, via Somalia and Oman, are also increasing. Notably, Kornet anti-tank missiles – a weapon possessed by Iran, but not part of Yemen’s looted stockpiles – have been reported on the battlefield, as have other advanced systems, including armed drones.
The weapons transfers also include ballistic missile technology. A report from a U.N. expert panel found that remnants of missiles used in Yemen’s civil war originated in Iran, showing that Iran did not block the transfer of ballistic missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which prohibits arms shipments to the insurgency.
The U.N., Western countries and the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen all say the Houthis’ Burkan or Volcano missile mirrors characteristics of an Iranian Qiam ballistic missile. In addition, a new report from the independent watchdog Conflict Armament Research stated that roadside bombs, disguised as rocks in Yemen, bear similarities to others used by Iran’s terror proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and by insurgents in Iraq and Bahrain.
Iran’s goals in Yemen appear to center on undermining the credibility of the Riyadh government in the short term by further aiding Houthi resistance, and in the long term to create a client state on the southern Saudi border. The Houthi have already proven willing and able to fire ballistic missiles at the Saudi capital. A well-armed and Iran-aligned Yemen could vastly complicate a regional conflict – a scenario that has been made vastly more likely by the nuclear deal with Iran.