December 16, 2017

Iranian weapons in Yemen - is anyone surprised?

Wreckage of an Iranian-made Qiam missile recovered in Saudi Arabia

At Defense Intelligence Agency headquarters in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed the remnants of an Iranian-manufactured short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that was fired by al-Houthi rebels in Yemen at the international airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 4. The missile was successfully intercepted by a Patriot missile fired by Saudi air defense forces.

Along with the wreckage of the Qiam SRBM, Haley showed reporters additional Iranian-made weaponry captured from the al-Houthi group, including a guided antitank missile and an armed drone. This is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231* which bars Iran from the “supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran.”

The fact that Iran is supplying the Houthis in Yemen with the three things required for a successful insurgency - money, weapons and training - should come as no surprise to anyone who reads even the slightest news accounts from the Middle East. Iran has been using its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force for decades to provide the wherewithal to conduct insurgencies and terrorism virtually around the world.

The IRGC's operations have extended from Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela in this hemisphere to the former Yugoslavia, North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia - well, virtually everywhere in the Middle East. This includes support to non-state actors as well, with Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza being prime examples.

Yemen is no exception to Iran's foreign policy and IRGC operations. Iran takes special interest in failed states and states in which there is a significant Shi'a population - both of these factors are present in Yemen. The Shi'a comprise about 45 percent of the population of Yemen, and make up the vast majority of members of the al-Houthi (formally known as
ansar allah, "supporters of God") rebel group.

We see the same interest being paid to other states with significant or majority Shi'a populations. Of course, we have seen the massive support - men and materiel - being provided to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, as well as the government of Iraq. I already mentioned the support provided by IRGC-created Lebanese Resistance, more commonly known as Hizballah. Those three countries, along with Iran itself, comprise the "Shi'a Crescent" extending from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

This land bridge will develop further - the IRGC just sent an initial overland convoy from Iran through Iraq, crossing the border into Syria at the newly-retaken Tal Ba'adi border crossing. According to Iraqi military officials - currently and nominally our allies - the convoy consisted of IRGC troops Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia fighters. Interesting side note: the Iraqi border crossings along the central Syrian border are controlled by these Popular Mobilization Unit militias, not regular Iraqi forces.

Other areas of Iranian meddling include Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, venue of the headquarters of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, is a majority Shi'a country ruled by a Sunni royal family. The Iranians have fomented demonstrations, including violent confrontations, against the government, demanding a greater role for the Shi'a population. A pipeline explosion last month was labeled an Iranian terrorist act by the Bahraini security services. Eventually, Iran would like to see the current government replaced with a pro-Iran (read: Shi'a) regime, and the expulsion of the Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf.

In Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief rival for regional influence, Iran often foments trouble among the the minority Shi'a population. The Shi'a in the kingdom are thought to be only about 10 to 15 percent of the overall population, and are concentrated in the Eastern Province. This province is the largest in Saudi Arabia and home to much of the kingdom's oil facilities. When relations between the two countries deteriorate, Iranian-inspired/directed trouble in the province is expected.

The Iranians regard themselves as the leaders, sponsors and protectors of all things Shi'a. They have successfully made themselves a force to be reckoned with in the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East. It should come as no surprise to see Iranian IRGC members, including the Qods Force, and Iranian weapons in areas where a Shi'a presence can be exploited.

Yemen - a failed state with a large Shi'a minority - is a prime target for Iran.

* UNSCR 2231 Annex B, paragraph 6b: [All States are to:] Take the necessary measures to prevent, except as decided otherwise by the UN Security Council in advance on a case-by-case basis, the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran, until the date five years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.