By Oubai Shahbandar*
Tehran is now sending advanced weaponry and seasoned advisers to support Houthi extremists in Yemen, according to recent revelations first reported by Reuters. The effort is led by Iran’s Qods Force, which has overseen the training and arming of Shiite extremist proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Using that expertise and lessons learned in the battlefield, Qods Force operatives are now leveraging their resources to significantly escalate the quality and quantity of military support to Houthi militants.
Qods Force leader Qasem Soleimani was reported to have met with senior officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Tehran recently to map the newly accelerated effort to “empower” Houthi forces via training, financial support and enhanced weaponry intended to shift the balance of power in Yemen.
Iran’s plan there is straightforward: Replicate the Lebanese Hezbollah model of training, and indoctrinate and financially sustain militants who pledge allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as their “source of emulation” (marja e-taqlid).
The Obama administration had long ignored warnings by the Arab Coalition that Soleimani and his Qods Force were trying to open a new front against Saudi Arabia and Arab allies. With recent revelations of Iran’s strategic aims in Yemen out in the open, it is incumbent on the Trump administration to establish a strategic doctrine to counter Iran’s efforts in Yemen.
Just as importantly, a policy of linkage is needed given the multiple fronts in which Iranian subversion is active. Tehran is seeking to provide Afghan and Shiite Arab veteran fighters and specialists to train and advise Houthi extremists. This will include Iranian-Arab and Afghan proxies that have fought on behalf of Khamenei in Syria.
Iran does not differentiate between the frontlines in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Accordingly, the Arab Coalition and the US must link efforts to roll back Qods Force infiltration in Yemen with Iran’s operations in the Middle East as a whole.
According to a weapons expert quoted by Reuters: “Recent transfers of arms and munitions have also included drones, fitted with high-explosive warheads and used by Houthis to engage high-value targets such as radar and Patriot missile batteries.” This is a clear game-changer as the Qods Force attempts to also smuggle long-range missiles to Houthi militants that can potentially target Riyadh.
Drone attack boats, such as the one that hit an Arab Coalition frigate in January filled with high explosives, is another capability being transferred by Iran to the Houthis, according to reports quoting the US Navy.
In other words, the Qods Force is raising the ante and going “all in” in Yemen. This escalation was predictable because Iran is not deterred in a conventional sense. It does not currently fear military retaliation for its covert exploits in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and throughout the Arabian Gulf. Another lesson learned is that the Qods Force does not give up easily.
Despite multiple successful interdictions of Iranian military shipments to their proxies, they continue unabated. The Qods Force is punch-drunk from its battlefield successes in Iraq and Syria, and is now seeking to replicate that in Yemen and bring the war directly home to the Arab Coalition.
Soleimani must be designated an international terrorist and dealt with accordingly. There is no other way around what, to many, is an uncomfortable fact: He has managed to evade and stay ahead of the competition for over a decade.
A recent report published by Al-Monitor offered an interesting insight into Soleimani’s thinking: When he was sent to Syria to assess the military situation in 2013, he reported back that the Assad regime was likely to lose and had lost control of 75 percent of the country, but he did not see the situation as hopeless; he doubled down.
Qods Force military activity in the Middle East is no longer part of a “cold war.” A newly emboldened Tehran hardly goes to much effort to deny its malign activity anymore, as it did in 2005.
It is time that Iran pays an equitable price for its expanding militant proliferation. Soleimani and his direct subordinates must be as hunted as any other international criminals. Could doing so raise the risk of direct escalation with Iran? Perhaps, but not doing so will likely be much more destabilizing and existentially threatening.
*Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.