The permanent civil war in Yemen is turning into a war of position, as easy and rapid advancement of Ansar Allah (Hussites) militants has stopped and even retreated in some areas. Their rivals, part of the army that remains loyal to the runaway president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the coalition of Arab states, are not likely to be able to change the situation in their favor either. Low-intensity military actions continue in the north of Sana, the Hussite-controlled capital of Yemen. It is logical that having exhausted all its resources, Ansar Allah and its coalition are more than ever trying to attract their allies - Iran (on the one side) and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of the Persian Gulf states (on the other side) - to the conflict settlement.
The latter has been directly involved into the conflict, openly bombing Yemeni cities, arming anti-Hussite forces and providing them with military advisers. As to Iran’s direct involvement into the Yemen war, it has not been proved by present. Saudi Arabia is accusing Iran of supplying arms to Hussites and training their forces. In July 2017, Tehran was condemned for that by Saudi Ambassador to UN Abdallah al-Mouallimi and then by Foreign Minister of Yemen Abdulmalik Abduljalil Al-Mekhlafi.
Iran really supports Ansar Allah. However, formally, this is about diplomatic support to the movement, loyalty at international organizations and assistance in peaceful resolution. This role of Iran was repeatedly highlighted by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Tehran regularly comes out for settlement of the Yemen crisis through dialogue. It urges talks between Ansar Allah and the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who took its side with supporters of President Hadi and the Sunni majority. This is by far not the full list of participants in the Yemen conflict: there is Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, separate ISIS cells and even Socialist militants – the successors of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen liquidated in 1990. All these groups will have to either continue the decades-long war or try to negotiate. The second scenario is desirable at least for humanitarian reasons, considering the destroyed infrastructure, economic collapse, cholera epidemic and almost full disintegration of the country. In this light, Iran’s stance seems justified.
Iran has a series of goals in Yemen that are going far beyond that at first sight peripheral country. First, it supports Yemeni Zaidis close to its Ithna Ashari Shia confession and forming Ansar Allah. The two confessions have religious differences, but Zaidis are closer to Iran’s theocratic leadership than Yemeni Sunnites and, much less, Saladi radicals are. Religious factor is behind Iran’s support to Syrian Alawites too. Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei had said his country would be protecting Shiites anywhere on the Earth, which implies not just diplomatic methods, indeed.
However, Iran prioritizes its geopolitical interests and tries not to miss the chance – Iran received it when U.S. attacked Iraq - to reform the Middle East and strengthen its positions there. The Islamic country has already made a progress therein – four Arab capital cities are under its control – Baghdad, Damascus, Sana and Beirut. Bahrain and perhaps Ad-Damman, the center of Eastern Shia Province of Saudi Arabia may join them in the future. Saudi Arabia, the center of the Sunni world and Washington’s ally, is understandably trying to prevent such scenario and return the lost positions. The Iranian-Saudi conflict in Yemen, where Iran’s positions are not as strong as those of Saudi Arabia, should be considered from this perspective.
As for arms supplies the Arab coalitions blames Iran for, this information comes from Arab media and then appears in Western media too. This is mostly connected with Ansar Allah’s successes. Both small arms like Ak-47 and missiles successfully used by Hussites are in question. For instance, in February, Ansar Allah simply “beheaded” the group of troops loyal to Hadi’s government near Al-Moha by destroying its head of staff, Major General Akhmed Saif al-Yafi’I by a missile. In mid-March, Hussites successfully destroyed Saudi military at King Salman’s air base near Yemeni border with Iranian Ghader missiles, which even American MIM-104 Patriot systems failed to stop.
In January, Hussites proved their ability to fight sea targets by destroying Al-Madinah Saudi frigate and an auxiliary vessel of UAE Navy. All this afforded ground for blaming Iran for arming Ansar Allah. Iran denies these accusations by journalists and officials. No serious proofs that Iran is behind Hussite successes has been published yet.
A relatively big quantity of Iran’s arms could reach Yemen only by the sea. Recently it has been almost fully blocked by the coalition ships. Incidentally, Arab ships identified the first potentially Iranian surface-to-air missiles probably on their way to Yemen (for the Hussites) yet several years ago. The coalition claims that after reaching Yemen’s shores, those cargoes so necessary to the rebels are loaded on fishboats and dispatched to the land. However, these are just assumptions too. No big quantity of arms with Iranian markings have been identified in the hands of Hussite forces.
Direct involvement of Iranian troops in the Yemeni conflict is even more unlikely. The situation in Yemen differs from the one in Syria where a great number of Iranian troops are fighting. On the other hand, fighters of Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollah movement openly fight on the side of Hussites. According to Israeli special services, Iran is building a missile plant in Lebanon and if it succeeds, arms theoretically can reach Yemen via the Eastern Mediterranean, Suez and Red Sea. Anyway, Iran will formally turn as clean as a whistle again.
If Iran needs to intensify efforts in Yemen and provide more support to Ansar Allah, it can do it easily both directly (military advisors) and indirectly (arms supplies). Iran’s military build-up theoretically can lead to victory over Hadi, but it will hardly settle the problem with Saudi Arabia since attacks on the Saudi territory without no air support and efficient air defense will probably die out under fly missions of Saudi Air Force.
Iran’s policy of gradual pressure on Ansar Allah’s political rivals in Yemen and simultaneous peace talks and search for a consensus show how deeply Iran’s leadership comprehends the uneasy realities of the Arab republic.
Anton Yevstratov for EADaily