What Convicted Smugglers Tell Us About Iran’s Proxy Wars

Yemen has sentenced eight sailors for smuggling arms to local rebels. The crew of the Jihan sailors received sentences ranging from one to six years in prison; the alleged mastermind of the operation, tried in absentia, received ten. No one in the Jihan‘s crew is Iranian, but Tehran’s presence was certainly felt during the trial ...

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen has sentenced eight sailors for smuggling arms to local rebels. The crew of the Jihan sailors received sentences ranging from one to six years in prison; the alleged mastermind of the operation, tried in absentia, received ten. No one in the Jihan's crew is Iranian, but Tehran's presence was certainly felt during the trial -- and is the answer to what the Jihan and its deadly cargo were doing in the Gulf of Aden in the first place.

On Jan. 23, the Yemeni military, working closely with the U.S. Navy, stopped a 130-foot sailboat off the coast of al Ghaydah, a Yemeni city near the Oman border. A search of the ship, according to Yemeni officials, revealed that it was carrying an entire arsenal of Chinese surface-to-air missiles, C4 explosives, rocket propelled grenades, mortar shells, and other military equipment bound for Houthi rebels, a Shia revivalist movement that has waged an intermittent war for autonomy in Yemen's northern Saada province over the past decade. The eight-person crew of the ship, all Yemenis, was arrested for arms smuggling.

Almost immediately, Iran was fingered as being behind the deal. It wouldn't be the first time -- the Yemeni government has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis for years, with little evidence to show for it. But starting in 2012, as other ships smuggling arms were intercepted, including some shipments being directed through Turkey to mask their origin, U.S. officials started finding the Yemeni accusations more credible. These shipments, Yemeni officials said, contained heavy weapons and the materials for making explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a lethal variety of roadside bomb that was commonly used by Iranian-allied Shiite militants against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The timing, though, was strange. After fighting a half-dozen "Saada wars" under President Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis had been relatively quiet since the start of the country's revolution in early 2011, some even coming to the capital, Sanaa, to participate in sit-in protests against the government.

Yemen has sentenced eight sailors for smuggling arms to local rebels. The crew of the Jihan sailors received sentences ranging from one to six years in prison; the alleged mastermind of the operation, tried in absentia, received ten. No one in the Jihan‘s crew is Iranian, but Tehran’s presence was certainly felt during the trial — and is the answer to what the Jihan and its deadly cargo were doing in the Gulf of Aden in the first place.

On Jan. 23, the Yemeni military, working closely with the U.S. Navy, stopped a 130-foot sailboat off the coast of al Ghaydah, a Yemeni city near the Oman border. A search of the ship, according to Yemeni officials, revealed that it was carrying an entire arsenal of Chinese surface-to-air missiles, C4 explosives, rocket propelled grenades, mortar shells, and other military equipment bound for Houthi rebels, a Shia revivalist movement that has waged an intermittent war for autonomy in Yemen’s northern Saada province over the past decade. The eight-person crew of the ship, all Yemenis, was arrested for arms smuggling.

Almost immediately, Iran was fingered as being behind the deal. It wouldn’t be the first time — the Yemeni government has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis for years, with little evidence to show for it. But starting in 2012, as other ships smuggling arms were intercepted, including some shipments being directed through Turkey to mask their origin, U.S. officials started finding the Yemeni accusations more credible. These shipments, Yemeni officials said, contained heavy weapons and the materials for making explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a lethal variety of roadside bomb that was commonly used by Iranian-allied Shiite militants against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The timing, though, was strange. After fighting a half-dozen "Saada wars" under President Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis had been relatively quiet since the start of the country’s revolution in early 2011, some even coming to the capital, Sanaa, to participate in sit-in protests against the government.

That lull has come to an end this month with a fresh round of fighting between Houthis and Salafists in the city of Dammaj, which was a flashpoint during the Saada wars. Over several decades, Salafism that has spread from Saudi Arabia, along with the kingdom’s large patronage network among the Yemeni tribes, has reshaped Yemen’s religious landscape. Dammaj’s Dar al-Hadith institute, a center of Salafist study, is emblematic of the growth of Salafism in Yemeni society that the Houthi movement was in many ways a reaction against. Clashes over Dar al-Hadith over the past two weeks, which have killed over 100 people and persisted despite attempts to find a diplomatic solution, has drawn the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which announced its "total solidarity with our Sunni brothers in the centre in Dammaj," adding that the Houthis’s "crimes against the Sunni people will not pass without punishment or disciplinary action."

Iran has been a vocal supporter of the Houthis, part and parcel with Tehran’s self-appointed role as the defender of the Middle East’s Shiite communities — though the Iranian leadership practices a different variation of Shiism than the Houthis. "Salafis Continue Attacking Houthis in Northern Yemen," begins one recent Iranian report on the fighting in Dammaj, "Al-Qaeda threatens Yemeni Shia community," reads another. But Iran’s interest in Yemen goes beyond cheerleading and quietly smuggling weapons to the Houthis based on their shared Shia heritage: It’s also a contested sphere of influence in the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Iran has also tried to make inroads with Yemen’s democracy activists, as well, regardless of their religion. Supporting the Houthis is "an indirect means to attack the Saudis," Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told FP. When it comes to the different sects of Shiism practiced by Iran and the Houthis, Iran "is ecumenical about these things, especially when the shared foe is the Saudi family."

The Saada conflict is often overlooked amid Yemen’s al Qaeda insurgency and Southern separatist movements. But the recent flare-up on Yemen’s forgotten battlefield is and the Jihan sentencing are quiet signs that Iranian-Saudi cold war is still heating up where their proxies meet.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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