Bottom Line: US claims that Iran is smuggling weapons to Shi’ite Houthi militants in Yemen come as Yemen embarks on a serious restructuring of the military to rid it of elements loyal to the former regime, which in turn is using militants attached to al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to sabotage oil operations and undermine the interim government. There is an Iranian presence in Yemen and this will likely be increased as Iran becomes more fully isolated in the Middle East and seeks proxy theaters to boost its strength, but this presence is still embryonic and by no means represents an Iranian “invasion” as Israeli and Western media would have us believe.
Analysis: Yemen and US claims that Iran was behind a recent shipment of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Yemen lack evidence and should be understood on a geopolitical level and against the backdrop of a number of developments that have led to an intensification of the security situation: 1) the military has formed specialized teams to manage its restructuring; 2) the representatives for a National Dialogue were named on 13 February; 3) demonstrations have reached a dangerous level in Taiz; 4) a key oil pipeline in the Marib governate was blown up.
Iran denies involvement in the arms shipment, while the Yemeni government claims the arms were destined for the northwestern frontier where Shi’ite Houthi rebels are in a long-running standoff with the government of Yemen. Only photographs of these missiles have been released and it is unclear if they are Chinese or Iranian. A weapons manufacturing origin also does not provide evidence of its shipping origin. Shipping documents are purposefully being withheld in this investigation. The Saudis, in particular, are keen to ensure that this shipment is tied back to Iran and it seeks proxy theaters for its Iranian containment policy (see above).
The Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north has gained ground thanks to the security vaccuum presented when the government was forced to redeploy forces to the capital in early 2011 to quell protests and military rivalry threatening the regime. The Houthis have regrouped and rearmed and are waiting, poised to intensify the conflict, to see what their role might be in a new national dialogue. They are also preparing for another round of armed conflict with neighboring Saudi Arabia and face increasing sectarian attacks by Sunni militants supported by the Saudis and certain Yemeni military factions. The Southern Movement of separatists in the south of the country are on the verge of making an important decision as to with whom they will align themselves to further their secessionist interests. These two theaters are Iran’s only chance of gaining a foothold in Yemen, which it appears to be pursuing, but has not achieved to any significant extent.
What our intelligence sources know about the Iranian presence in Yemen is that Iran’s influence in Yemen, among the Shi’ite Houthis and the Southern secessionists, is being exaggerated for geopolitical purposes by Saleh, by the Saudis and by the Americans. At this point, however, Iran’s activities in Yemen are largely limited to intelligence gathering and attempts at making certain alliances with indecisive separatists in the south and among Houthi rebels. There are indications that Iran has carted southern separatists back and forth to Tehran in an attempt to determine potential cooperation. However, these attempts at forming an alliance have so far been rejected by southern separatists who rightly perceive that al-Qaeda would be a more expedient ally.
The Houthi rebels are already very well armed and gained access to additional arms during the chaotic unrest in early 2011. While the Houthi territory would be Iran’s most fertile ground for infiltration, this territory is land-locked and surrounded by Saudi Arabia and unfriendly Yemeni territory controlled by Sunni militants. If the Houthis managed to carve themselves a path to the Red Sea, then Iran could have more control over the situation, which in turn would likely lead to a naval showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is not probable in the foreseeable future.