By: Debalina Ghoshal
In November, the Yemen crisis further escalated when it fired a Burqan 2H long-range ballistic missile that probably targeted Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city. According to the Saudis, the missile (although intercepted by Saudi Arabia) was fired by the Houthi rebels, and the Saudis have accused the Iranians of supplying missiles to them. Saudi Arabia termed this as an “act of war” by Iran.
Although Iran has denied it provided the missile, Saudi Arabia continues to level the accusation. The two countries are fighting a proxy war in Yemen, and if the former succeeds, it would lead to a Sunni influence, while if the latter succeeds, it would be a Shia influence in Yemen.
Iran is backing the Houthi rebels, providing aid and necessary weapons. According to US Vice Admiral Kevin M Donegan, Tehran is supplying anti-ship and ballistic missiles to the Houthis as well as deadly sea mines and explosive boats - weapons never seen in Yemen before. Other weapons provided include AK-47s, Iranian reverse engineered missiles similar to the TOW anti-tank missiles and sniper rifles. All of this despite port blockades and closed airports, meaning the possible source of transfer could be Oman.
Iran’s support for Houthis is not new. Over a decade ago, when the then Yemeni President Ali Saleh attempted to crush the Houthis, Tehran offered to train them in camps run by Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as in Iran run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In September, 2016, it was reported that Houthis, who control the Yemen capital Sana, had squandered $4billion from the central bank, which remains under Houthi control, for the war effort, instead of for the import of food and medicine.
These funds could have been diverted to purchasing Iranian weapon systems, as a sanctioned Iran would provide weapon systems to the Houthis through the black market for hard cash that could help its sanctions’ stricken economy.
In February 2017, a senior Iranian official of the Qods force - an external wing of the IRGC - Major General Qassem Soleimani, met top IRGC officials in Tehran to discuss ways to “empower” the Houthis by increasing the amount of help through financial support, provision of weapon systems and training.
The ongoing Yemen crisis would provide an impetus to the Iranian military industry. Tehran’s upper hand in the crisis would increase if it overpowers the Saudis in every way possible in the region, then the balance of power would tilt in favor of Iran as it is already gaining power in the region in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, an upper hand in Yemen could also imply an Iranian military presence there.
However, the Houthis have not showed any keenness to fulfill Iran’s ambitions. In 2016, Houthi political council chief, Saleh al Samad, said, “[n]ot one inch of Yemen’s land or waters will be fortified to any foreign country… whether a friend or an enemy.”
Iran’s expansionist tendencies are becoming a worrying factor for Yemen President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who extended support to all parties to the war in Yemen against Iran. But through the ongoing fighting and indiscriminate violence that the people of Yemen are victim to, Yemen has become a “sphere of contested influence” between Sunni Saudi and the Shia Iran.
Hadi has been in support of Saudi assistance and has throughout loathed the Iranian backing of the Houthis. In April 2015, Hadi’s Yemen also rejected Iran’s peace plan proposal of a ceasefire, thereby ending military attacks and indulging in humanitarian assistance, resuming a broad national dialogue as well forming a national unity government.
At the moment, as Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, a former UK Special Forces Head puts it: “Iran’s involvement in Yemen is a part of a wider regional conflict (in the Middle East), one that Tehran hopes to win by overthrowing the old order and replacing it with one where Iran is better placed to dominate the region.”
Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense issues.