Iranian Weapons, Uncertain Destination
Questions remain to be answered about the weapons seized in Yemen's waters
The first and simplest assumption is that the weapons were destined for Yemen, because the weapons were seized in Yemeni waters on a Yemeni-crewed boat. Yet the UN recently reported that much materiel arriving in Somalia comes from Iran and Yemen. A direct line from Iran to northern Somalia passes through Yemeni waters, and if the ship was laboring, then it would be reasonable for Yemeni seamen to make for Yemeni shores in the hope of beaching before they broached.
The next assumption was that the destination of these Iran-originating weapons was to insurgents, and more explicitly to the Houthis, a Zaydi Shi’a revivalist grouping. The Yemeni government has a track record of blaming Iran for supporting the Houthis, on the basis of their supposed common sectarian identity—although about 40% of Yemenis are themselves Zaydi Shi’a, including many of the government. (Previously, the Saleh regime had cast the Houthis successively as monarchists, pro-Libyan, and pro-Al-Qaeda—co-incidentally, all US foes. In a rare moment of honesty, in 2010 Ali Abdullah Saleh finally admitted that there was no Iranian state involvement with the Houthis, and that the Yemeni regime had exaggerated the issue.) No one seems to have questioned President Hadi’s assertion, nor noted that the Houthis are currently taking part in the political process, and thus have a limited need for such weaponry at the moment. Nor did anyone note that Yemenis are the second most heavily armed people in the world, second only to the US; the Houthis thus already have unfettered access to ample quantities of weaponry.
By contrast, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been pushed onto the back foot by determined Yemeni state and tribal actions under President Hadi, and have lost much materiel. In addition to Yemeni ground forces, AQAP have been much attrited by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS, popularly known as drones). AQAP thus have a genuine, urgent interest in procuring anti-air missiles. Iran—which has an interest in destabilizing the Saudis and the US—showed itself prepared to deal with Sunni terrorists in Iraq on a non-blowback basis. (Given the surface-to-air missiles already available in Yemen, the addition of small numbers of not-very-sophisticated SAMs is no threat to Iran—although it might cause the American UAVs some problems.)
Another possible destination for the weapons is the violent Al-Harak fringe, the partisans of Sayyid Ali Salim Al-Baidh, formerly president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and of the brief breakaway Republic of South Yemen. Their links to Iran are relatively well-established in funding, and their activists have become increasingly prepared to use violence to achieve their aims. The Islamic Republic will deal with atheist Socialists, Sunnis, and the Great Satan himself, it seems.
From the fact that the weapons came from Iran, it is stated that the weapons were Iranian, which metamorphoses into their being supplied the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI)—the current bogeyman of the MENA region. Yet the nature and unit quantities of the materiel are less indicative of official intent. Consider the surface-to-air missiles without their grip-stocks. Missiles and batteries are consumable items, and as such are usually not marked with a serial number. That makes them rather easier to “lose” or “dispose of” than the grip stocks, which are re-useable and crucial, and thus usually serial numbered for control purposes. The absence of serial numbers and the irregular quantities of equipment may point to a corrupt Iranian military officer selling off weapons and materiel for cash.
Then there are the high-power observation binoculars. They are very capable, but not very mobile—hardly the sort of thing for a terrorist or insurgent. Indeed, when taken together with previous reports of Iranian or Turkish (and so on) weaponry making its way into Yemen, it is entirely possible that this was a shipment of equipment destined for an arms dealer—of whom Yemen has more than a few, including the Houthi-linked Faris Mana’a—rather than for end users.
Supporting this possibility are the reports that the Islamic Republic has been exporting huge quantities of ammunition, in particular to Africa. While an attempt to project influence is assumed, the anonymised nature of the materiel goes against this. A far more likely reason—in the face of debilitating US sanctions—is cold, hard cash. The traditional remuneration for materiel is US dollar bills, no larger than fifty dollars, and non-sequentially numbered.
One would be foolish to think that the Islamic Republic, under the neo-Khomeinist President Ahmadinejad, was not trying to take advantage of the Arab Spring to project its influence. However, that does not mean that all actions originating in Iran are official policy, or part of the Islamic Republic’s influence operations.
Distortion, litotes and political misdirection run rife in the media in general, and on the Middle East and North Africa in particular. Healthy skepticism and rigorous analysis usually offers alternative explanations. As Sherlock Holmes was wont to note, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”