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Iran in Yemen: See no evil, hear no evil

Western leaders have displayed astonishing unwillingness to acknowledge the evidence of their own intelligence agencies and militaries concerning Iranian interference in Yemen and the region.
During Gen. James Mattis’ Senate hearings for his appointment as defense secretary last week, it emerged the degree to which Barack Obama’s administration had closed its ears to Mattis’ weekly warnings about Iran’s destabilizing role in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and elsewhere during his tenure as America’s top military commander in the Middle East.
Eventually Obama’s team, preoccupied with engaging Iran, had enough of being told what it did not want to hear, and the general was replaced. As Obama’s adviser Dennis Ross relates: “It was a kind of culture clash. There was such a preoccupation in the White House with not doing things that would provoke Iran or be seen as provocative. Mattis was, by definition, inclined toward doing those things that would be seen as provocative.”
In recent days, the Australian government released photographic evidence of thousands of weapons of Iranian origin, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, seized in just one raid last year off the Yemen coast. Far greater quantities were impounded in multiple seizures by French, US and other vessels in 2016.
Considering the difficulties of patrolling Yemen’s long and inaccessible coastline, these seizures represent the tip of the iceberg.

Considering the difficulties of patrolling Yemen’s long and inaccessible coastline, these seizures represent the tip of the iceberg.

In November, Conflict Armament Research released an extensive report demonstrating that impounded arms were primarily of Iranian origin. The report talked of a “weapons pipeline extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen; which involves the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons.” A single dhow in March 2016 contained 2,000 Kalashnikov-style rifles “characteristic of Iranian manufacture.”
Under the international sanctions regime, Iran is prohibited from exporting arms, a ban that Tehran has flagrantly flouted in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, Iranian shipments to Bahraini terrorists continue to be intercepted. Kevin Donegan, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, acknowledged that recent seizures were part of a much larger effort by Iran to move weapons to the Houthis.
Intelligence experts also raised concerns about the exploitation of the porous Yemen-Oman border for smuggling weapons. A US official told Reuters: “We are aware of a recent increased frequency of weapons shipments supplied by Iran, which are reaching the Houthis via the Omani border.”
Rather than denying such allegations, senior Iranians have bragged about them. A senior Iranian diplomat confirmed there had been a “sharp surge in Iran’s help to the Houthis in Yemen” since May 2016, including weapons, training and money. He told Reuters the objective was to escalate conflict with Saudi Arabia: “The nuclear deal gave Iran an upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, but it needs to be preserved.”
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s closest confidants have been similarly vocal. MP Alireza Zakani in 2015 bragged that Sanaa would be the “fourth Arab capital” to fall into Iran’s hands after Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. Zakani predicted that the “Yemen revolution” would extend into Saudi Arabia. Ali Akbar Velayati called for the Houthis to play “the same role in Yemen” as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Earlier this month, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hussain Salami declared: “It is now time for the Islamic conquests. After the liberation of Aleppo, Bahrain’s hopes will be realized and Yemen will be happy with the defeat of the enemies of Islam.”
Until very recently, the Houthis were a minority group in the far northwest of Yemen with around 2,000 fighters, only capable of stirring up localized bouts of unrest. During the 2011 disturbances, Hezbollah’s Unit 3800 with support from Iran’s Al-Quds Force channelled funds and training to Houthi insurgents. The head of Unit 3800, Haj Khalil Harb, was later designated for US sanctions for his role in training and arming the Houthis.
US National Intelligence Director James Clapper said in 2014: “Iran will continue to provide arms and other aid to Palestinian groups, rebels in Yemen, and Shiite militants in Bahrain to expand Iranian influence and to counter perceived foreign threats.”
Iran and its allies have declared that when fighting finishes in Mosul, Iraqi and Syrian proxy militias will be reconfigured as a regional “expeditionary force.” The Washington Times reported: “Iran has positioned thousands of loyal Iraqi Shiite militia fighters around Mosul with a strategic goal of creating long-lasting armies inside Iraq that can also deploy as an expeditionary force to Syria, Yemen and other contested regions.”
Senior Iranian military figures confirmed that they already had assets on the ground and intended to increase their presence in Yemen. In August 2016, IRGC Brig. Gen. Mohammed Ali Falaki told hard-line Iranian media sources that Iran was working toward “the formation of a Shiite liberation army whose commander is Qassem Soleimani… One front of this army is in Syria, the other in Iraq, and another in Yemen.”
Faliki is a senior figure in the Syria-based Fatimiyoun Brigades, a mainly Afghan militia of 8,000-12,000 fighters recruited by Iran. After such proxies played a leading role in brutally subduing east Aleppo, there has been increasing discussion of these assets being redeployed elsewhere.
While Iran looks to pivot troops away from Syria, it remains involved in a massive feat of social engineering, relocating thousands of Shiites to western Syria to fundamentally alter the demographic balance in the region between Damascus and the Lebanese border.
An exclusive report by The Guardian illustrated how far-reaching these measures are, with one source saying: “Full sectarian segregation is at the heart of the Iranian project in Syria. They are looking for geographical zones that they can fully dominate and influence.”
These measures resemble similar strategies pursued by Iranian proxies in mixed areas of Iraq, where tens of thousands have been terrorized into exile and prevented from returning to their homes, in a transparent effort to alter the sectarian balance ahead of crucial provincial elections over the coming months.
It took Israel decades for its settlements project to divide the West Bank into ungovernable cantons. These Iranian-engineered population shifts are happening before our eyes. Tehran must not be given carte blanche to do the same in Yemen, which is already facing a humanitarian catastrophe.
Iran’s self-proclaimed role in “liberating” Yemen is being ignored in the West. The smuggling of eye-watering quantities of heavy Iranian weaponry into Yemen passes without comment. Meanwhile, the media and human rights groups have taken every opportunity to give intense coverage of allegations of humanitarian suffering resulting from actions by the Saudi-led coalition.
The Kingdom is the primary source of humanitarian aid to Yemen, supplying hundreds of tons of food and emergency supplies, and billions of riyals of financial support. Yet specious Houthi allegations that the coalition has blocked aid are what the media has tended to focus on.
In the case of Bahrain and Yemen, Iran-funded “opposition” entities have been waging an intense media campaign, vilifying Gulf leaderships and inciting human rights organizations against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Dozens of Iranian and Hezbollah media channels have waged campaigns of hate speech and incitement to violence across the region. There is a need for systematic efforts to counter these dangerous lies and propaganda that are fueling and perpetuating civil conflicts.
Warehouses full of impounded Iranian weapons are testimony to the massive scale of Tehran’s interference in Yemen. Iranian military and political leaders have made it crystal clear that they intend to escalate their involvement by putting militia boots on the ground and making local proxies increasingly dependent on their support — exactly as Iran has done very successfully in Syria.
Yemen’s central position on the world’s shipping routes, and its position as the gateway between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, give this nation tremendous strategic importance. In light of Iran’s dominant position across a huge swathe of territory stretching through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean, allowing Iran to consolidate a foothold in Yemen would have catastrophic consequences for the region’s geopolitical balance of power.
Iranians are sick of their hard-line leadership, which is wasting billions exporting revolution overseas, leaving the nation impoverished. A Zogby poll shows how Iranian support for involvement in Syria plunged from 90 percent to 24 percent in just two years. Iranians want less ideology, theology and foreign meddling, and a regime that prioritizes their aspirations.
However, the figures being pushed by entities such as the IRGC to replace the ailing supreme leader — such as Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Sadeq Larijani and Mohammed Taqi Mesbah Yazdi — are even more hard-line and fanatical than Khamenei.
We have spent too long covering our eyes and ears and pretending that Iran’s involvement in Yemen and elsewhere is exaggerated and insignificant. The facts speak for themselves. Pessimists would say it is too late to roll back Iranian hegemony in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. However, there remains a narrow window of opportunity for Yemen.
The international community must compel Iran to recognize that there are consequences to its far-reaching meddling in Arab states. When ordinary Iranians and the outside world speak with one voice, pouring billions of dollars into policies of regime-change, meddling and proxy war may eventually become suicidal for this regime.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.