It is no coincidence that Iran’s role in Yemen is growing steadily with the imminent demise of its Syrian ally. All the signs tell us that Iran’s ambition is to penetrate the Gulf states through this flank of the Arabian Peninsula, namely Yemen, a country that contains over a million weapons and has a history of conflict, tribal alliances, and economic collapse. All of these factors favor the Iranian strategy, which thrives in atmospheres of chaos and seeks to recruit as many allies and supporters as possible, without paying attention to their sectarian background as some people think. Iran is now strongly backing the southern secessionists in Yemen and is trying to infiltrate their region, not through Shiite proselytizing but through publicizing the injustice done to the southerners on the one hand, and attempting to play to the tune of Gulf reconciliation on the other. This is a relatively new line in Iran’s foreign strategy, which throughout the Yemeni crisis continued to maintain contacts with Houthi allies by providing them with weapons, money, and political expertise. Indeed, this is the secret behind the Houthis transformation in the Sana’a political arena, where they have now become an influential player.
With the growing political role of the Houthis, Iran has in turn increased their armament largely thanks to its easy penetration of Yemen’s borders, in addition to its network of cross-border supplies from neighboring African countries, with Eritrea at the forefront. Of course, the story of Iran’s relationship with the African continent is just as serious as its interference in Yemen.
The timing of this next stage, which those in the Gulf are not aware of, coincides with the increasing pace of the Syrian revolution and the imminent fall of Iran’s greatest ally, not to mention the impact of this upon Hezbollah. Thus, creating a state of division in Yemen-through strong political entities within a fragile and chaotic country-is now Iran’s primary objective. This was evidenced by the quantity and quality of weapons seized in a recent Iranian shipment, including surface-to-air missiles, C-4 military explosives, 122mm rockets, equipment to manufacture bombs, electronic circuits, remote-control detonators, and hand grenades.
We are facing a new situation in which Iran is seeking to create an ally that can fight a proxy war against the Gulf states and also threaten Western interests in Yemen. This is a repetition of the Hezbollah experiment in Lebanon, especially if we consider the geography of Yemen and the intermingled tribal and religious loyalties there, in addition to the accumulated sense of neglect being felt by large portions of influential people in the country, who lay the blame on the international community led by the US and the Gulf states. It is true that the Gulf initiative requires a minimum level of political stability in order to produce economic growth, but in light of the volatile conditions in the region and in Yemen in particular, the question is whether economic growth will lead to political stability or whether Yemeni economic progress depends on an end to chaos and division, and the enactment of widespread political reforms. Many organizations tend to believe the latter is the case in light of negative experiences with the former regime, which was extremely corrupt and diverted money away from development projects.
In my opinion, Iran’s smuggling of weapons into Yemen should not come as a surprise, but the quality and quantity of weaponry is alarming in itself, especially given the growing political role of the Houthis. On the occasion of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, the Houthis hinted of a war against all those who stand against their project. In the past, several political groups relied on the Houthi political bloc to launch attacks against the former regime, and here I do not acquit the Joint Meeting Parties or the revolutionary youths who contributed to strengthening this political force. It is ironic here that elements of the former regime, including the president-who according to his latest interview is currently busy planting trees and writing the third volume of his political memoirs-and the Congress Party are now being accused of supporting the Houthis and strengthening their political expansion, as revenge for the manner in which they were ousted from power. If this is true, it means we are facing a very complicated political situation that cannot be dealt with solely through a narrow sectarian context; there are also political dimensions to consider. For example, there is a changing equilibrium in Yemen. The politics of the state have always revolved around the tribe and the sect but now there are new political blocs as a result of the revolution, including leftists, human rights activists, and figures opposed to the Gulf initiative. Many now support the Houthis, whether covertly or overtly, and some even attend political conferences in Tehran and Lebanon under the pretext that they are engaging in political dialogue with an influential faction. While these opposition groups should be under no illusions about the implications of this development, what is strange is the silence of the Yemeni street, which has become desperate in its failure to improve living conditions. Here, the risks of Houthi expansion seem attractive when one is under the impression that the world has forgotten Yemen and its basic needs. Even a quick review of economic and development indicators in post-revolution Yemen shows that the state is on the verge of collapse.
Of course it is impossible here to ignore the issue of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is using Yemen as a base for its activities where it can access any part of the world. It is likely that the emphasis placed on a resurgent Al-Qaeda; a resurgence that coincides with the Arab spring, has contributed to the strengthening of Iran’s influence in Yemen, firstly due to the political vacuum, and secondly as a result of Yemeni anger towards the civilian casualties of drone attacks.
Ultimately, I think that Iran’s latest smuggling attempts and the Houthi statements and alliances tell us that this is a final warning from Yemen.