By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
Iranian media outlets Press TV and Fars News Agency both reported that Iran’s 34th naval flotilla has been dispatched to the waters off Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The stated mission of the flotilla is to protect tankers and cargo ships flying the Iranian flag and will also engage in counter-piracy operations.
This isn’t the first time that Iran has deployed naval assets to the region, but this move comes at a politically sensitive time as a coalition of Arab nations have militarily intervened in Yemen and ongoing talks with the U.S. and other nations regarding Tehran’s nuclear program are taking place. Previous missions to the area have indeed cooperated in supporting international counter-piracy operations; however Iran is also known to operate clandestine smuggling operations in the area to support militants along the Levantine coast and, yes, even in Yemen. Clandestine operations by Iran to smuggle weapons in the past have been uncovered including two shipments to Yemen in 2009 and 2013. The first disrupted operation included Iranian personnel and comprised only a small shipment while the 2013 operation used Yemeni citizens with a more robust cache of weapons.
In the current round of Middle East conflicts – most notably Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen – there have been a mixing of elements engaged in combat stemming from local issues, national governance, sectarian friction, and, most often discussed, the wider regional conflict between Arab nation-states and Iran. With Yemen having been on the brink of dissolution for the better part of the last decade a full unraveling and associated war shouldn’t come as a surprise, yet one element that is seemingly controversial is the alleged Iranian support of Houthi rebels.
Yemen is in an area where Iran would like to have strong influence both because of Yemen’s long, shared border with Tehran’s archrival Saudi Arabia, but also because of the large presence of Shia in the north of the country. Granted, theological differences between Iranian Shias and the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam – from which the Houthis hail – are present, but practicality spurred on by conflict tends to trump such dissemblance. When the Houthis first took up arms against the Saleh regime they were outgunned and outmatched. In the span of a few years’ time the rebel movement has seized the capital Sana’a and has spread as far south as Aden. Such a profound turnaround doesn’t happen without some form of outside support. Indeed, in 2009 Hezbollah ran photos of its fighters working with Houthi rebels on the Nasrallah.org website. Hezbollah did lose some of its members in combat in Yemen and their funerals were hardly kept secret, but it is evident that Hezbollah’s and Iran’s work with the Houthi’s did bear fruit.
Within the last year Iran hasn’t been as shy about advertising its presence in neighboring nations conflicts as it has been in the past. In fact, General Qasem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards has become seemingly omnipresent judging by his photos from Syria and Iraq despite his covert operations background. Indeed, Iran is feeling more confident of its regional role, but it has come with a price. Iranian forces and allied Shia militias have taken heavy casualties in combat and with oil prices taking a dip the cost of the conflict will only continue to grow. Iran may seem on the march now, and they have certainly had a share of some success in spreading their influence, but keep in mind that Iran does have weaknesses and their rivals will seek to exploit them.
The conflict in Yemen provides an opening for Iran to complicate the situation on the ground for the Arab coalition. If the Arab coalition is busy in Yemen it will make it more difficult to counter Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq—hence Iran’s interest in sending its navy to the region. Tehran wants to keep a close eye on the situation and the naval deployment is likely just a start to more aggressive involvement in Yemen.