LONDON: Iran is sending advanced weapons and military advisers to Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement, stepping up support for its Shia ally in a civil war whose outcome could sway the balance of power in the Middle East, regional and Western sources say.

Sources with knowledge of the military movements, who declined to be identified, said that in recent months Iran has taken a greater role in the two-year-old conflict by stepping up arms supplies and other support. This mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in Syria.

A senior Iranian official said Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force — the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — met top IRGC officials in Tehran last month to look at ways to “empower” the Houthis. “At this meeting, they agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and financial support,” the official said.

Iran rejects accusations from Saudi Arabia that it is giving financial and military support to the Houthis in the struggle for Yemen, blaming the deepening crisis on Riyadh.

But Iran’s actions in Yemen seem to reflect the growing influence of hardliners in Tehran, keen to pre-empt a tougher policy towards Iran signalled by US President Donald Trump.

Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, spokesman for the Arab coalition fighting the Houthis, told Reuters: “We don’t lack information or evidence that the Iranians, by various means, are smuggling weapons into the area. We observe that the Kornet anti-tank weapon is on the ground, whereas before it wasn’t in the arsenal of the Yemeni army or of the Houthis. It came later.”

A Houthi leader said coalition accusations that Iran was smuggling weapons into Yemen were an attempt to cover up Saudi Arabia’s failure to prevail in an intractable war in which at least 10,000 people have been killed and the country is on the brink of famine.

“The Saudis don’t want to admit their failings so they are searching for false justifications ... after two years of the aggression that the United States and Britain are involved in,” the Houthi leader, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

A former senior Iranian security official said Iran’s hardline rulers planned to empower Houthi militia in Yemen to “strengthen their hand in the region”. “They are planning to create a Hezbollah-like militia in Yemen. To confront Riyadh’s hostile policies ... Iran needs to use all its cards,” the former official said.

A Western diplomat in the Middle East agreed: “Iran has long been trying to cultivate portions of the Houthi militias as a disruptive force in Yemen. This is not to say that the Houthis are Hezbollah, but they do not need to be to achieve Iran’s goals, which is to encircle the Saudis, expand its influence and power projection in the region and develop levers of unconventional pressure.”

Sources say Iran is using ships to deliver supplies to Yemen either directly or via Somalia, bypassing coalition efforts to intercept shipments. Western sources say once the ships arrive in the region, the cargoes are transferred to small fishing boats, which are hard to spot because they are so common in these waters.

A US defence official said Iranian weapons smuggling to the Houthis had continued apace since March last year, when the seizures stopped. The equipment included long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching deep into Saudi Arabia. “There is no plausible explanation for these weapons’ appearance other than outside assistance. We assess that assistance has likely come from Iran,” the US official said.

Nic Jenzen-Jones, a military arms specialist and director of Armament Research Services, which has tracked Iranian equipment ending up in Yemen, also said quantities had increased. “We have seen some more success in sea-based transfers over the last few months and I suspect the general uptick in the frequency of Iranian arms that we are documenting is partially a result of more successful deliveries by sea,” Jenzen-Jones said

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2017

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