How Iran views the fall of Sana'a, Yemen: "The Fourth Arab Capital in Our Hands"
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
In recent years the Yemeni government conducted a series of military operations against rebels of the al-Houthi clan of the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam. This conflict, which has already gone on for over 10 years, stems from feelings of political, economic, and social discrimination among the Zaidi Shia residents of Yemen's north. The Houthis constitute about 30 percent of Yemen's population, which totals over 25 million people. The Zaidi Shia are considered one of the moderate Shia schools, closer from a legal standpoint to the Shafi'i school of the Sunna. At the same time, since the Islamic Revolution in Iran and all the more so in recent years with growing Iranian subversive activity in Yemen, the Zaidi Shia have been increasingly exposed to the ideological influence and political agenda of the regime in Iran, leading to a change in the usually moderate attitudes of the Zaidi Shia.
Yemen's geostrategic location at the entrance to the Red Sea and across from the Horn of Africa, along with the inherent weakness of the central regime, have made it an attractive target for subversion by external power centers, both political and nonpolitical. That pertains particularly to Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Al-Qaida as another disruptive element.
In September, Shia rebels of Ansar Allah (Houthi's military wing) were able to exploit the weakness of Yemen's central government, which is also engaged in a struggle with the Sunni Al-Qaida and with tribal and separatist elements in the southern part of the country. Ansar Allah took over on September 21 the capital city of Sana'a and the Al-Hudaydah port (150 kilometers southwest of Sana'a) on the Red Sea, Yemen's second most important port after Aden almost without resistance by the security forces and the Yemeni army. The Houthi forces' entry into the capital was accompanied by calls of "Death to America" and "Death to the Jews," imprecations heard frequently from the Iranian regime. Battles are also being waged in Yemen between Ansar Allah and Ansar al-Sharia, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and has had difficulty coming to terms with the recent Shia successes in Yemen.
The Houthi Shia rebels, having conquered Sana'a and Al-Hudaydah, are now concentrating their efforts on a further conquest of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. This key waterway, the southern gateway to the Red Sea, passes through the Gulf of Aden, linking the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, and historically constituted a strategic hub connecting Eastern and Western trade routes. Yemen overlooks and indeed commands movement through the strait from the island of Miyun (Birim). From the African side, Eritrea and Djibouti overlook the strait.
Iran views Yemen, in general, and the northern Shia sector in particular, as a convenient staging ground for subversive activity against Saudi Arabia, its main religious-political rival in the Middle East, via the Saudis' "backyard." Iran also sees Yemen as an important factor in its policy of establishing a physical Iranian presence, both ground and naval, in the countries and ports of the Red Sea littoral, which control the shipping lanes that lead from the Persian Gulf to the heart of the Middle East and onward to Europe. If the Shia rebels gain control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, Iran can attain a foothold in this sensitive region giving access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a cause of concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, but also for Israel and European countries along the Mediterranean.
Arab commentators in the Gulf have warned in recent years about this Iranian push. For example, economic analyst Muhammad Abduh al-Absi said in an interview to Asharq Al-Awsat that Iran has long been trying to take over the sea lanes surrounding the Arab world. It commands the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf (through which five million barrels of oil pass daily) and now is trying to seize the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (through which three million barrels of oil pass daily), which forms a key conduit of trade for all the states along the Red Sea. Al-Absi emphasized that Houthi control of the strait will have a harmful impact on the entire world, but those that will suffer the most will be the Gulf states, which will be at Iran's mercy.
Before invading Sana'a and seizing other parts of the country, the Houthis were concentrated in the city of Sa'dah in northern Yemen, on the Saudi border. There the Zaidi Shia form a majority of the population. Now the Houthis are trying to extend their control beyond the oil-rich Mar'ib province in the country's east.
Sana'a: The Fourth Arab Capital to Fall into Iran's Hands
For Iran, which in recent years has supported the Houthis' struggles as part of its fight with Saudi Arabia over regional influence, the Houthis' recent gains in Yemen mark an impressive achievement. Senior Iranian spokesmen have referred publicly and particularly defiantly to the latest Houthi successes and have not hidden their support and satisfaction with the expansion of their control in Yemen and their political gains. It should be noted that before the Arab spring erupted and undermined the old order in the Middle East harsh criticism was leveled in Iran at the government's helplessness in the face of the "slaughter of the Shia" in Yemen.
Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iranian foreign Minister, and currently adviser on international affairs to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and president of the Expediency Council's Center for Strategic Research, recently told a group of Yemeni clerics in Tehran: "The Islamic Republic of Iran supports the rightful struggles of Ansar Allah [Houthis] in Yemen and considers this movement as part of the successful materialization of the Islamic Awakening [the name Iran adopted for the "Arab Spring"] movements." Velayati added that the Houthis had succeeded in creating a movement without precedent in any Arab state, and that their frequent and rapid triumphs (in the domestic arena) proved that "Ansar Allah planned their moves well in advance [perhaps hinting at Iranian involvement?] and learned from past experience." Velayati added that he was sure Ansar Allah's triumph in Yemen meant that the Houthis would play a similar role to the one Hizbullah plays in Lebanon.
Velayati was asked about the effects of the Yemeni revolution and responded, "The important issue is that the road to freeing Palestine passes from Yemen since Yemen has a strategic location and is near Indian Ocean, Gulf of Oman and Bab al-Mandeb."
Ali Riza Zakani, a member of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) who is close to Khamenei, said in a similar vein but with the defiance that increasingly marks Iran's foreign policy, "Three Arab capitals (Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad) have already fallen into Iran's hands and belong to the Iranian Islamic Revolution." He added that Iran is now at a stage of "Grand Jihad" [one of the outcomes of the Arab Spring] and must carefully calibrate its foreign policy to this reality. Iran's functionaries, he asserted, must be informed of the regional developments and the political actors in each country, through whom one can influence the course of events and help "the oppressed peoples in the Middle East." Ali Riza Zakani added that, whereas before the revolution there were two principal trends – Saudi Islam and Turkish secularism, today the Islamic Revolution has changed the power equations in the region in its own favor and Iran is now at the height of its power, imposing its will and strategic interests on the region as a whole.
Zakani praised the activity of Qasam Suleimani, commander of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF), and said that without the Qods Force's intervention in Baghdad it would have fallen into ISIS's hands. "If Haj Qassem [Suleymani] had come to Baghdad several hours later it would have fallen," said Zakani. The same held true for Syria, according to Zakani: "If we had hesitated in the face of the Syrian crisis and not intervened militarily, the Syrian regime would already have fallen at the beginning of the revolt." After Assad's victory in the elections, he said, "Instead of congratulating me, congratulate the leadership of Iran."
Social networks post pictures of Qasam Suleimani on visits to Iraq and in meetings he holds with commanders of the Iraqi army, with the Kurdish Peshmerga, and with Shiite militias in Iraq that are fighting ISIS.
First Yemen, then Saudi Arabia
As for Yemen, Zakani added that it constitutes "a natural extension of the Iranian Revolution….What is happening in Yemen is bigger than what's happening in Lebanon… 14 of its 20 provinces will soon to fall into Houthi control." In a jibe at Saudi Arabia, Tehran's sworn enemy, he warned the revolution would not be restricted to Yemen and would also permeate deeply into the Saudi kingdom …. After the victory of the revolution in Yemen, the turn of Saudi Arabia will inevitably come because these two countries (Yemen and Saudi Arabia) share 2,000 kilometers of common borders. Now there are two million organized armed men in Yemen.
In this vein the editor of Kayhan, who is close to Khamenei, estimated a few days before the Houthi takeover of Sana'a that "the al-Saud family would fall and the kingdom would not survive the Houthi revolution transpiring in Yemen."
Yadollah Javani, one of Khamenei's senior advisers in the IRGC, wrote in the conservative, IRGC-affiliated newspaper Javan that recent developments in Yemen had again shown the power of the Islamic awakening and induced great concern in the Gulf states and in the West. He also remarked that the Houthis in Yemen have accumulated greater experience than other Islamic movements [by implication, Sunni] in the Arab world, and that "it is worth noting the pictures of the Leaders of Iran, Khomeini and Khamenei, that the Yemeni Shia carried." The paper also used the Houthi rebels' takeover of the Yemeni capital to slam the BBC in Persian, a target of Iranian criticism, saying it prefers highlighting the chickenpox of Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi to reporting on the dramatic events in Yemen.
The deputy commander of the IRGC, Hussein Salami, analyzed the strategic situation in the region and assessed that it was favorable to Iran, stressing that Iran is "capable of controlling the political developments in the region without using military force and without having a direct presence on the ground." Salami added that U.S. aerial attacks on ISIS testify to the United States' blatant failure, its being sidelined from the main events in the region despite its aim to regain control over them, while the U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya had suffered a complete failure. He pointed to the West's inability to isolate Iran and noted that the United States, France, and Britain were begging Tehran for help in their war against a small organization, ISIS, which is actually, he claimed, their own creation. In contrast, Salami asserted, "Iran is on the verge of reaching a new level of power…. Today our conflict with the West has expanded to the Mediterranean and this indicates a change in the regional power equations, an increase in our power, and a narrowing of the range of our enemies' power," along with the rising power of Islam and the Muslims.
In this vein Brigadier General Massud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, accused the United States (before the Shia rebels' takeover of Sana'a) of a double-standard policy in Yemen and called on it "to respect the will of the Yemeni people…. The Yemenis do not provoke foreigners, including the United States and the reactionary Arab states [Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states], to interfere in its internal affairs." Houthi-led demonstrations in Yemen calling for restoration of fuel-price subsidies (as indeed was done in the end) and to replace the government won support in the Iranian media.
An Iranian journalist interviewed on a Hizbullah-affiliated TV channel, Mayadeen TV, said that: "The Bab Al-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Hormuz tighten the noose on the Red Sea, on Israel in the Suez Canal," and called Saudi Arabia a "tribe on the verge of extinction." He added that the leader of the Houthis, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, would become the leader of the Arabian Peninsula and that U.S. president Barack Obama, after having drunk from the poisoned chalice at the gates of Damascus, the walls of Gaza, and the suburbs of Baghdad, was drinking from it for the fourth time in Yemen.
The conquest of the capital strengthens the Houthis' bargaining posture in the political negotiations they are conducting with the Yemeni government, and enables them – with Tehran's encouragement – to pose political dictates and adopt an anti-Western line. For the first time in years, Shiites in Yemen publicly commemorated the day of Ashura in Sana'a to mark the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
Iran has expressed support for the reconciliation agreement that was signed by the Shia rebels and the government in September, a short time after Sana'a fell. Iran will probably intensify its involvement in the Yemeni domestic sphere in line with the Hizbullah model in Lebanon, determining the identity of the prime minister and his government and holding the reins of the army. Iran will do so while exploiting the political vacuum created by the Houthi takeover of the capital. With most of the Houthis' power concentrated in areas along the Saudi border, Iran will also leverage the Houthis' gains to step up its effort to subvert the kingdom, with the Shia in the oil-rich areas of eastern Saudi Arabia as its target audience.
Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa resigned shortly after Sana'a's fall to the Shia rebels. On October 13 Khaled Bahah (who served until June as UN ambassador) was elected to the post after gaining the support of most of the political groups, and after Chief of Staff Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, the preferred candidate of Presidential Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, was rejected for the post because of Houthi protest. In any case, Bahah's job will not be easy; he will have to secure the agreement of the Houthis (with Iran meddling behind the scenes) for his moves and deal with the growing battles between the Houthis (Ansar Allah) and Al-Qaida, which has been infiltrating Sana'a, and between Al-Qaida and the army. In addition, the central government remains weak in relation to the south and to the tribal elements.
There is nothing new in Iran's subversive activity in various Middle Eastern countries aimed at promoting Shia Islam. The Arab Spring and the collapse of the old regional order reinforced and accelerated this activity, and Iran is now conducting it publicly without any fear of negative consequences. Iran is exploiting the Arab regimes' weakness, along with the decline of U.S. influence and power projection in the region, to aggressively promote its agenda, which centers on strengthening the Shia element in the Arab countries. The main change in Iran's policy is that its senior officials no longer fear voicing Iran's real intentions and have become open, blunt, and defiant in doing so.
Iran's enhanced confidence is apparent in other areas as well. In southern Lebanon, for example, Hizbullah has gone back to challenging Israel, and for the first time since the 2006 Second Lebanon War the organization was quick to take responsibility for laying explosive charges it activated against the IDF. Hizbullah is indeed bogged down in Syria and Iraq, operating in Yemen, and paying a heavy price in blood for its involvements. Yet it is also accumulating battle experience in urban warfare and the conquest of villages.
Iran's defiant posture intensifies the threat felt in the Arab states in general and in the Gulf states in particular. The United States' continued ignoring of this trend along with its de facto détente policy18 toward Iran further reinforce these states' unease and sense of threat. Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said that Iran's military involvement in active conflicts in the Arab states only fans the flames of these conflicts. At the end of an emergency meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia following the Houthi takeover of Sana'a, the interior ministers of the Arab states declared they "will not stand idly in the face of foreign interventions which are of a sectarian nature, as Yemen's security and the security of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are considered one issue which cannot be separated." Yet the GCC states' ability to intervene in Yemen is limited, even though in the past, after the Shia in Bahrain (who constitute a majority) gained strength and posed a threat to the regime, these states under Saudi leadership sent a military force – the Peninsula Shield Force – to help the king of Bahrain maintain his throne against the Iranian-supported Shia.
While Iran is not actually part of the coalition fighting ISIS, it reaps the benefits – the weakening of a radical Sunni actor that has been gaining sympathy in the region and in the world and that could threaten Iran's western border (Iraq). ISIS also diverts the spotlight from Iran's nuclear program and its subversion of regional countries. Meanwhile Iran continues its activity in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen by means of the Qods Force and local Shia organizations under its authority, thereby ensuring its long-term interests in these countries.
Involvement of the Qods Force and the IRGC
Since the battles between Yemen and the Houthi Shia rebels began Yemen's government has accused Iran and Hizbullah of helping the insurgents. Yemen also arrested Hizbullah and IRGC members who aided the Houthi rebels and the secessionist Al-Hirak movement in southern Yemen. The Yemeni prime minister also charged that the leader of the movement, Salem al-Beidh, enjoys Hizbullah protection. Hizbullah also helped establish the Houthi rebels' Al-Masira radio station. On September 25, Yemeni president Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced to free a number of IRGC members and Hizbullah operatives under the pressure of the Houthis, who had taken over Sana'a. These individuals left Yemen on an Omani plane. At the beginning of the year, IRGC men were arrested at the airport after arriving in Yemen to help train the Houthis.
In mid-2014 Yemen arrested some Hizbullah operatives who were helping train the Houthi military force. According to different reports, Hizbullah's Unit 3800 (whose corollary Unit 1800 also operates with Palestinian organizations in Israeli territory) has been training the Houthis' military wing in Yemen. For years Yemeni security professionals have been charging that Hizbullah is active in training the Houthi rebels' military wing in northern Yemen. Iran, through the Qods Force and with Hizbullah's help, is fortifying a presence in Yemen that enables it to smuggle weapons and drugs from Iran to the Yemeni ports and from there via the Red Sea to terror organizations it supports in the Middle East and North Africa and even to European shores. The Shia insurgents' takeover of the Al-Hudaydah port and their aim to conquer the Bab al-Mandeb Strait further facilitates such activity by Iran. The combination of the Qods Force and Hizbullah Lebanon, which is training local Shia actors, repeats itself in other Middle Eastern countries where Iran is operating, especially Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain.
On January 23, 2013, Yemen interdicted an Iranian ship, the Jihan-1, which was carrying weapons for the Houthi rebels. The weapons on the ship included 122-mm rockets, 20 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), 100 bombs and RPG launchers, Iranian- and Russian-made night-vision binoculars, silencers for automatic weapons, large quantities of high-quality RDX plastic explosives, electronic equipment for the activation or production of IEDs, monitoring equipment, and other weaponry. A report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said the captured shipment may have been intended for the Al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Shabaab terror group. It should be noted that the UN investigatory committee revealed that the weaponry was hidden among diesel-fuel tanks, and stated that all the findings led to the conclusion that Iran was behind the smuggling attempt in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1747. In October 2009 Yemen interdicted the Mahan-1 ship carrying weapons, mainly antitank missiles for the Houthi rebels.
A Far-Reaching Struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia
The intensifying political-religious-military struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran has expanded to most of the Middle East's countries. Iran's power projection to the southern border of Saudi Arabia adds regional implications to the conflict between the Yemeni regime and the Shia rebels well beyond the domestic Yemeni dimension. The ongoing success of the al-Houthi tribe's revolt with Tehran's support, which has now led to the takeover of extensive parts of Yemen, creates another locus of regional confrontation (in addition to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian territories) between Iran and Saudi Arabia, each with its own interests and proxies in the Yemeni arena.
The warfare between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels is not only being waged on the ground but also on TV screens, satellite channels, and social networks. The two main actors in this war for public awareness, however, are Iran and the Saudis.
Iran's media favorably cover the efforts and achievements of the Shia rebels while slamming Saudi Arabia and its ties with the United States; whereas the Saudi-affiliated media, particularly the satellite channel Al Arabiya, which broadcasts from Abu Dhabi with Saudi funding, and the pan-Arab press led by Asharq Al-Awsat, harshly condemn Iran for backing the Houthi rebels and intervening militarily in other Middle Eastern centers of conflict and crisis, particularly Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Iran blames Saudi Arabia for manipulating oil prices with the U.S. to weaken Iran. The oil glut, aided by Saudi production, has plunged the current prices close to $80 per barrel; Iran requires more than $100 p/b to sustain its budget.
Clear and Present Danger
In sum, Iran is continuing to exploit the Arab camp's weakness and Washington's hesitant policy toward the developments in the region since the start of the Arab Spring. While the Gulf states, chiefly Saudi Arabia, are occupied with thwarting ISIS and are joining the rickety coalition the United States has formed to defeat it, Iran keeps pursuing with increased intensity and without fear its policy of exporting its revolution to main areas of conflict, particularly Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.
Via its proxies, Iran is gradually managing to take hold of strategic areas of the Arab world that are mired in ongoing internal crisis and where there is an active Shia population that has long been subject to Sunni authority. The Arab states' weakness plays into Iran's hands; it encounters no substantial resistance to its activity apart from feeble, toothless protests. As for the international community, Iran suddenly finds that it is the United States that, in effect, is helping strengthen and stabilize the Shia axis that extends from Iran through Iraq, Syria (where the United States refrained from military action after Bashar Assad crossed the chemical weapons "red line" it had drawn), Lebanon, and now also crosses the Red Sea to Yemen and back through Bahrain in a sort of circle surrounding the Arab world. For the Gulf states the fall of Sana'a ("the fourth Arab capital in Iran's hands") to the Shia rebels and the possibility that they will soon control the Bab al-Mandeb Strait constitute a "clear and present danger."
In the context of its campaign against ISIS, the United States turned to -- and was rebuffed by -- Iran. Yet Washington believes that its interests in the struggle against ISIS overlap with those of Iran. As in the past, however, it is doing Tehran's work (as in the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 and the ouster of Saddam Hussein) and serving Tehran's long-term interest in achieving regional Shia hegemony. Washington is investing limited effort and great diplomatic energy in defeating about 20,000 ISIS operatives while simultaneously strengthening Iran and its role in Iraq and Syria. In actuality, the United States is playing in the Shia court and helping vanquish a radical Sunni actor (ISIS) that poses a substantial challenge to Iran. And in the court of the nuclear talks, the United States is not taking a strong position comparable to the red lines that Iranian Leader Khamenei is laying down.
In any case, in fighting ISIS Washington is apparently using as collateral its long-term interests connected to its continued presence in the region, ties with traditional regional allies (which are weakening), and attempts to stabilize the region for the pursuit of short-term interests – particularly a conciliatory line toward Iran and avoidance of angering it when there is a common enemy, ISIS. The great fear is that the United States will also take a conciliatory approach in the nuclear negotiations in return for Iran's continued, apparently indirect cooperation in the war against ISIS.
The Sunni-Shia Fault Line
Even the "degrading and destroying of ISIS," as Washington has put it, would not remedy the ongoing collapse of the Middle Eastern political system and old historical order. The relations between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shia) Iran in particular, and the relations in the Arab world in general, will continue to be defined in the near and more distant future by the religious division and the Sunni-Shia fault line, which has been the dominant factor in these relations for hundreds of years.
The Sunni-Shia rivalry will continue to characterize and dictate the course of events in the region; meanwhile, as part of this struggle, Iran goes on gaining strategic territorial assets.
This rivalry will also continue to affect other conflict arenas throughout the Middle East where Iran will try to impose its influence, as it does in Lebanon through Hizbullah. Saudi Arabia, for its part, will keep trying to counter the Iranian-Shia threat, as it is doing in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq with great transfusions of money. This will be very difficult for Saudi Arabia in the absence of U.S. support. Yemen, which is not threatened by ISIS and where Iran has now prevailed, is clearly a case in point.
A Shia Bomb
Meanwhile, Iran will keep trying to augment its advantage over Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab world with its nuclear program, or, to put it simply, a "Shia bomb," which would provide an umbrella and immunity for promoting the spread of the Shia revolution and the survival of the regime. From Iran's standpoint this will entail the redress of a historical injustice – dating back to the dawn of Islam – of contemptuous, arrogant treatment of the Shia by the Sunnis, while providing a viable, Islamic, Shia alternative for confronting the West and Israel, the West's "handiwork" in the Middle East, after the repeated failures of Arab nationalism.
Should Iran complete its nuclear program and attain a bomb, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states will be forced to settle for an American or Pakistani nuclear umbrella, and may even choose to launch their own nuclear program and thus open a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
More than they fear enriched uranium or a few thousand determined ISIS fighters, the Saudis fear Shiism enriched to high levels of subversion in the east of the kingdom (in the oil-rich areas with their restive Shia population) and to the south (along the border with Yemen). The Houthi takeover of Sana'a, which constitutes an Iranian victory in the pitched battle with Saudi Arabia over its backyard, Yemen, has augmented the Saudi sense of threat and shown that Iran, which is gaining a foothold at the entrance to the Red Sea and the major international shipping lanes, does not intend to stop there. From Iran's standpoint, Yemen is part of a series of "heavenly" victories as Khamenei calls them (the "victory" of Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War and the rounds of fighting between Hamas and Israel), as Iran builds its status as a regional power on the ruins of the old Arab and superpowers order.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Foresight Prudence.