The deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces has hinted that his country may send military advisers to Yemen, as it has in Syria. He said that Tehran felt a duty toward both countries. Iran has been present in Yemen since before the coup against President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government last year.
Its expanded presence is a major reason Saudi Arabia built a military alliance and launched a war there, when it confirmed suspicions that Iran was behind the Houthis’ seizure of the capital, and was sending “military consultants” and huge shipments of arms to support them.
After its proxy seized power with the help of forces loyal to Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tehran said there would be a daily flight to Sanaa, up from one per week. Iran’s only exports to Yemen are arms and fighters.
Even after the war erupted, Sanaa airport was closed and the United Nations began inspecting all ships heading to Yemen, Iran continued to send arms shipments. Australia on Tuesday said its navy found an arms cache on a ship heading from Iran to Yemen. Ten days ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that another Iranian ship was intercepted. It costs Tehran a small amount of money to rent ships and repeat its attempts.
All this suggests that it wants to turn Yemen into another Syria, and into a battlefield for Iran-linked militias from Afghanistan to Lebanon. Tehran seems to be sending a message after positive developments regarding Yemen, such as negotiations, prisoner exchanges and delivery of aid for the first time. Iran either wants to destroy this progress or grant more leverage to its allies, who have lost more than half the territory they had seized.
Reconciliation in Yemen will increase pressure on Iran in other conflict zones such as Syria, so it is in Tehran’s interest to keep the fighting going. It hopes to achieve victory in Syria, where it has put its full weight behind the regime alongside Russia. There is much evidence that Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah is also involved in Yemen.
The country resembles Afghanistan in its rugged terrain, complicated tribalism and difficulty of movement. Tehran would be committing a mistake to send more arms and fighters to Yemen. Although this would complicate the situation for Saudi Arabia and its allies, Iran’s losses would be huge.
At the beginning, many people doubted that Iran was involved in Yemen, but today we rarely hear an expert deny the role it has played throughout the crisis. The same is true of its role in Syria, Bahrain and Iraq.
Iran does not lack courage to get more involved in Yemen, but this will backfire militarily and politically. Perhaps this is what Riyadh needs to prove that Iran’s threat has increased after the nuclear deal — to besiege the Iranians in the mountains and plains of a country that is resistant to invaders.