During Gen. James Mattis’ Senate hearings for his appointment as defense secretary last week, he alleged that the Obama administration didn’t listen to his weekly warnings about Iran’s destabilizing role in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and elsewhere, during his tenure as America’s military commander in the Middle East.
Obama’s team, who were attempting to engage Iran, replaced the general. Dennis Ross, an Obama adviser, 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.”
Recently, the Australian government released photos of thousands of weapons of Iranian origin, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, seized in a raid last year off the Yemen coast. Greater quantities were impounded in multiple seizures by French, US and other vessels in 2016. These seizures represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Conflict Armament Research released an extensive report in November, showing that impounded arms were primarily of Iranian origin. The report talked about a “weapons pipeline extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen; which involves the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons. 2,000 Kalashnikov-style rifles “characteristic of Iranian manufacture” were found in single dhow in March 2016.
Iran is prohibited from exporting arms, under the international sanctions regime, but Tehran has flagrantly flouted it in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and Iranian shipments to Bahraini terrorists continue to be intercepted. Kevin Donegan, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, stated that recent seizures were part of a larger effort to move weapons to the Houthis, by Iran.
Intelligence experts are also concerned about the exploitation of the 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.”
Senior Iranians bragged about these exploitations. 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.”
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. He 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 the Hezbollah did in Lebanon.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hussain Salami declared earlier this month, “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.”
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 until very recently,
Alamuddin writes, “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.”
James Clapper, US National Intelligence Director 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.”
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.”
That they already had assets on the ground and intended to increase their presence in Yemen was confirmed by Senior Iranian military figures. IRGC Brig. Gen. Mohammed Ali Falaki told hard-line Iranian media sources in August 2016, 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,” writes Alamuddin, adding, “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.”
The Guardian reported 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.”
Further, she says, “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.”
Warehouses full of impounded Iranian weapons testify to the scale of Tehran’s interference in Yemen. Iranian leaders have made it clear they intend to further their involvement by putting in militia making the locals dependent on their support, which what Iran did in Syria.
Yemen’s tremendous strategic importance, its central position on the world’s shipping routes, and as the gateway between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, is important to Iran’s dominant position across the territory stretching through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Iran’s 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,” Alamuddin writes. “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,” writes Alamuddin. She says, “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.”
Compelling Iran to recognize that there are consequences to its far-reaching meddling in Arab states must be made clear by the international community. When the people of Iran and the outside world speak together, calling for regime-change, meddling and war may eventually become suicidal for this regime.