Iran is sending advanced weapons and advisors to Shi’ite rebels in Yemen, sources claim
Iran's enemy Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in the impoverished state on the tip of the Arabian peninsula – part of the same regional power struggle that is fuelling the war in Syria.
Sources with knowledge of the military movements, who declined to be identified, say 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.
"Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East."
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.
Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on
Major General Qassem Soleimani
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 U.S. President Donald Trump.
Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, spokesman for the Arab coalition fighting the Houthis, said: "We don't lack information or evidence that the Iranians, by various means, are smuggling weapons into the area.
Yemen Crisis: 19-month civil war continues Wed, November 16, 2016
Schools and hospitals have been bombed, children are currently malnourished, the scale of suffering is the result of an ongoing conflict in Yemen. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed, according to the UN. Express Pictures reports the shocking photographs taken from inside the ongoing crisis in Yemen.
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Intensive care wards in Yemen's hospitals are filled with emaciated children hooked up to monitors and drips
Yemen is caught up in the same regional power struggle as Syria
"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.
"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, said.
At least 10,000 people have been killed in the civil war so war
Iran's activities have alarmed Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East, with one senior official from a neighbouring country saying: "We want Iran to stop exporting Shi'ism in the region, whether in Yemen or elsewhere."
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen's 1ivil war in 2015 to back President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after he was ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Houthis. Government forces in the south and east hold most of Yemen's territory, while the Houthis control most population centres in the northwest, including Sanaa.
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".
Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi fighters
"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."