Over the weekend, Yemeni militia in Aden reported capturing two Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers, allegedly while the two were advising Houthi militia forces according to Saudi forces. Previously Hezbollah fighters have reportedly been alleged to be operating within Yemen. The Lebanese media site YaLibnan reported in March that IRGC commander Qasim Suleimani was also operating in Yemen to take charge of the operation.
For their part, the Iranian government has denied that any Iranian soldiers are present in Yemen. Iran officially denies providing military support for the Houthis, but Secretary of State John Kerry has cited evidence of direct Iranian aid to the Shia rebel movement.
“There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran…There are a number of flights every single week that have been flying in. We trace those flights, and we know this. We are well aware of the support that Iran has been giving to Yemen, and Iran needs to recognize that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized, or while people engage in overt warfare across lines — international boundaries of other countries.”
Meanwhile, the US destroyer Sterret boarded and searched the the freighter Saisasban in the Red Sea on April 1st. The Saisasban was suspected of carrying arms from Iran to Houthi rebels, but no arms were found. Chief among these were suspected arms are surface-to-air missiles, a clear threat to the Saudi air campaign over Yemen. Iran has been known to supply the Houthis in the past; two years ago the Iranian freighter Jihan I, carrying large amounts of heavy ordinance, including rocket propelled grenades, anti-air missiles, military-grade plastic explosive and bomb making equipment was seized off the Yemeni shore. More worrisome, the ship also contained relatively high-tech Chinese MANPADS (shoulder-fired surface to air missiles), When the Houthi militias overran Yemen’s intelligence center, seizing U.S. counterterrorism intelligence, they also liberated Jihan I crew being held for their role in the smuggling attempt.
Weapons smuggling attempts by the Iranians have been recorded as far back as October 2009, when the Yemeni military intercepted the Mahan I, with a crew of six Iranians, allegedly weapons trainers heading to support the Houthis. Shortly there after the Saudis openly stepped up support for the Yemen government, and launched its own attacks against Houthi positions. In that prior conflict known as Operation Scorched Earth, as with current Operation Decisive Storm, The Saudis reported open Iranian and Hezbollah advisors assisting Houthi fighters.
Iran’s continued history makes clear that it considers Yemen to be a key strategic interest. Their continue support the Houthis in the hopes of establishing control the Bab el-Mandeb strait, which, together with the strait of Hormuz (which they already control) gives them control over two of the most crucial petroleum-shipping lanes, and permits them to effectively encircle Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians have continued to successfully arm, equip and train Houthi forces despite the small arms export embargo in place since 2006, an embargo put in place in response is a reflection of Iran’s ability and willingness to violate international law and norms, and successfully conduct clandestine operations to support their perceived goals. That’s a key lesson for U.S. policymakers, as they now concern the likelihood of Iranian compliance with any proposed nuclear agreement.