LONDON/ANKARA/DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran is sending advanced weapons and military advisers to Yemen‘s rebel Houthi movement, stepping up support for its Shi’ite ally in a civil war whose outcome could sway the balance of power in the Middle East, regional and Western sources say.
Iran’s enemy Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in the impoverished state on the tip of the Arabian peninsula–part of the same regional power struggle that is fueling the war in Syria.
Sources with knowledge of the military movements, who declined to be identified, say that in recent months Iran has taken a greater role in the two-year-old conflict by stepping up arms supplies and other support. This mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in Syria.
A senior Iranian official said Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force–the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–met top IRGC officials in Tehran last month to look at ways to “empower” the Houthis.
“At this meeting, they agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms, and financial support,” the official said.
“Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.”
Iran rejects accusations from Saudi Arabia that it is giving financial and military support to the Houthis in the struggle for Yemen, blaming the deepening crisis on Riyadh.
But Iran’s actions in Yemen seem to reflect the growing influence of hardliners in Tehran, keen to pre-empt a tougher policy toward Iran signaled by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, spokesman for the Arab coalition fighting the Houthis, told Reuters: “We don’t lack information or evidence that the Iranians, by various means, are smuggling weapons into the area.
“We observe that the Kornet anti-tank weapon is on the ground, whereas before it wasn’t in the arsenal of the Yemeni army or of the Houthis. It came later.”
Iran’s activities have alarmed Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East, with one senior official from a neighboring country saying: “We want Iran to stop exporting Shi’ism in the region, whether in Yemen or elsewhere.”
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen‘s civil war in 2015 to back President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after he was ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Houthis. Government forces in the south and east hold most of Yemen‘s territory, while the Houthis control most population centers in the northwest, including Sanaa.
A former senior Iranian security official said Iran’s hardline rulers planned to empower Houthi militia in Yemen to “strengthen their hand in the region.”
“They are planning to create a Hezbollah-like militia in Yemen. To confront Riyadh’s hostile policies … Iran needs to use all its cards,” the former official said.
A Western diplomat in the Middle East agreed: “Iran has long been trying to cultivate portions of the Houthi militias as a disruptive force in Yemen.”
“This is not to say that the Houthis are Hezbollah, but they do not need to be to achieve Iran’s goals, which is to encircle the Saudis, expand its influence, and power projection in the region and develop levers of unconventional pressure.”
Sources say Iran is using ships to deliver supplies to Yemen either directly or via Somalia, bypassing coalition efforts to intercept shipments.
Evidence of more sophisticated equipment suspected of being used by the Houthis has emerged in recent attacks.
On Jan. 30, a Saudi frigate was attacked near the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, in an operation that Saudi official media blamed on the Houthis.
The U.S. Navy said an unmanned remote-controlled boat laden with explosives rammed the Saudi vessel in the first known strike by a “drone” attack boat, and the Houthis had likely used technology supplied by Iran.
Jenzen-Jones said the quality of Iranian munitions had improved of late.
“Recent transfers of arms and munitions have also included Iranian Ababil series UAVs (drones), fitted with high explosive warheads and used by Houthis to engage high-value targets, such as radar and Patriot missile batteries,” he said.
In addition to the weapons, Iranian and regional sources said Tehran was providing Afghan and Shi’ite Arab specialists to train Houthi units and act as logistical advisers. These included Afghans who had fought in Syria under Qods Force commanders.
Reuters has reported this same covert approach was used in Syria in 2014 before Iran took a more open role in that war.
Full article: Iran Steps Up Support for Houthis in Yemen’s War (Washington Free Beacon)