April 7, 2014 | Policy Brief

Iran Continues to Destabilize Yemen

Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi last week called on Iran to stop fueling the two largest conflicts rocking his country: the northern Houthi insurgency and the southern separatist movement. Hadi asked Tehran to change its “wrong policies” and “lift its hand off Yemen.”

Iran has long been accused of aiding the Shi’ite rebels in northern Yemen, known as the Houthis, since a civil war between the insurgents and the Yemeni military forces erupted in 2004. In October 2009, Yemen seized an Iranian ship carrying anti-tank weapons. The vessel was manned by Iranian weapons experts purportedly sent to replace other Iranians fighting alongside the Houthis. A few months later, reports emerged of a secret meeting along the Yemeni-Saudi border between Houthi rebels and the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah.

In January 2013, a joint U.S.-Yemeni military operation seized another ship off the coast of Yemen containing a cache of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. Despite Iranian denials, markings on the confiscated weapons indicated they came from IRGC facilities. U.S. officials reported that the weapons were headed to the Shi’ite insurgents in Yemen’s northern provinces.

There are now signs that Iran may also be facilitating the southern secessionist faction known as al-Hirak al-Janoubi (the Southern Movement or Hirak). These separatists seek to restore the former socialist state of South Yemen that merged with the north in 1990. 

Ali Salem al Beidh, the leader of Hirak and the former General Secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party, explicitly said recently that Iran supports the separatist movement. Suspicions of his cooperation with Iran date back to a secret trip to Beirut in December 2009, allegedly to meet with Hezbollah officials. A 2013 report published by the Yemeni-based Abaad Center for Strategic Studies claims that Hezbollah directly supports the southern secessionists and that Iran benefits from such challenges to Sana’a’s central authority.

By funding both the Houthi and southern insurgencies, Iran’s two-track “shadow war” increases Iranian influence in Yemen while posing a direct threat to one of the region’s most unstable countries. Iran’s meddling in Yemen’s affairs is only a small component of a wider Iranian campaign of destabilizing the greater Middle East, from Syria to Bahrain and beyond.  It is not addressed in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), designed to bring an end to the standoff over Iran’s illicit nuclear program, thereby guaranteeing regional tensions even if a final deal is reached.

Oren Adaki is a Research Associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.