NEW YORK // Iran’s deepening role in Yemen’s war is laid bare in a new report that details the transfer of Iranian drone technology, weapons and proxy forces to assist the country’s Shiite Houthi rebels.
Iran and the Houthis are facing off against Saudi Arabia and an Arab coalition, part of a regional power struggle that is also fanning the conflict in Syria.
Evidence has emerged in recent weeks that Tehran has stepped up its support to the Houthis, who seized the capital Sanaa in 2014.
The report, by the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute, suggests Iran has sent advisers from Shiite proxies, including Afghan forces, to train Houthi units and provide logistical support as part of an effort to widen its influence.
“The deployment of interoperable proxy forces is part of Iran’s evolution of a form of hybrid warfare that will allow it to project significant force far from its borders and fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region,” it concludes.
Emily Estelle, one of the report’s authors, said the presence of Afghan advisers – including some who fought in Syria under the leadership of Iran’s special forces unit the Quds Force – may indicate a change.
“This deployment is an early indicator that Iran may be mobilising its proxy network to conduct hybrid warfare in Yemen as it has in Syria, albeit on a much smaller scale,” she said.
The report also describes how Houthi forces have begun using what appears to be Iranian-supplied drone technology.
Last week, weapons experts detailed how a Yemeni-built Qasef-1 drone shares specifications with an Iranian model and has been used to destroy air defence systems installed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The same drone model may also have been used in an attack that killed more than 20 troops loyal to president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi two weeks ago.
A boy holding a poster of Lebanon’s Hizbollah leader and the leader of the Shiite Houthi movement during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen on October 26, 2016. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
At the same time, Iran and its proxies are accused of supplying the technology that enabled Houthi forces to use a remote-controlled boat to attack a Saudi vessel in the Red Sea on January 30.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force are also believed to have supplied penetrators – a type of armour-piercing projectile – for use in improvised explosive devices.
In January, a UN Security Council report confirmed the connection.
The Houthis, who represent the Zaidi Shiite minority, launched a series of rebellions against the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh starting in 2004.
He was eventually forced from power in 2011 amid the fallout from the Arab Spring. But his successor, Mr Hadi, struggled to assert control as he dealt with a southern separatist movement and Al Qaeda at a time when members of his security forces remained loyal to Mr Saleh.
Houthi fighters eventually took control of Sanaa in September 2014, prompting the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition of nine Middle East and African countries, including the UAE, six months later.
In May 2015, two months after the coalition intervened, Mr Saleh formally announced his alliance with the Houthis.
Today, government forces in the south and east remain in control of most of Yemen’s territory, while the Houthis and their allies hold population centres in the north-west, including the capital.
The conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine. Two-thirds of the population is classed as “food insecure”, according to Oxfam.
The report also made recommendations to Donald Trump’s administration as it mulls a review of its strategy in the country.
This week it emerged that the US was considering offering additional support – in the form of intelligence and planning – to the Saudi-led coalition as Washington continues a month-long review of its Yemen policy.
Until now, Yemen has been viewed through the prism of the war on terror because of its status as a haven for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
However, the new administration is increasingly focused on the threat posed by Iran.
Ms Estelle said the US should work to avoid isolating the Houthis and instead reduce their reliance on Tehran.
“This will require the US to steer the Saudi-led coalition’s operations in Yemen away from the pursuit of the Houthis’ total defeat,” she said. “The US should instead shape coalition operations to block Iranian expansion, prevent harm to Yemen’s civilian population, and pressure the Al Houthi-Saleh faction with the goal of bringing the combatants to the negotiating table.”
Other countries have expressed worries that Iran is breaching an embargo on supplying weapons to the Houthi movement.
A spokeswoman for Britain’s foreign office told Reuters last week it was “concerned by Iranian support to the Houthis, including reports that Iran has transferred weapons to Yemen, which would be contrary to UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and the Security Council’s embargo on the export of weapons by Iran”.