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Strategic Shift: Iran’s role in Sanaa between Proxy Management and Direct Involvement

The Houthis’ drone and missile attacks are on the rise again on the domestic and foreign fronts. Twenty-one attacks were recorded in October 2020, following a period of relative decline since July 2020, in which were recorded 25 attacks, according to figures by the coalition. The largest number of attacks was recorded on 28 October, when nine armed offences took place one day following the appointment of Hassan Eyrlou, an officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the plenipotentiary and extraordinary ambassador of Iran in Yemen with absolute authority for the Houthi militia in Sanaa.

This development reflects a new Iranian trend on the Yemeni stage. The attacks on multiple fronts and developed drones and missiles bore the fingerprints of the IRGC. This indicates that the role of the IRGC changed from only providing logistic support to directly managing the Yemeni crisis. In tandem, the role of the Iranian foreign ministry, which was previously leading the scene, retreated as it directed the militia in the stumbling negotiation rounds during the last four years in Kuwait, Geneva and Stockholm. 

This article tackles the changing nature of the Iranian involvement in Yemen, its indications and future repercussions, be they inclined towards military escalation or political settlement. 

The evolution of the role of the IRGC in Yemen

On the domestic front, Houthi armed operations during the fall of Sanaa on 21 September 2015 did not reflect a prominent role of the IRGC. Instead, these operations reflected a pattern close to that of the six wars between 2004 and 2010. On the foreign front, almost at the same time, short-range missiles and Katyusha rockets were used in the attacks on southern Saudi Arabia. These weapons were not more developed than those used by Palestinian and Iraqi factions at that time.

However, since 2016, the militia started to use drones and accurate missiles modified with Iranian techniques and IRGC expertise. These weapons were not widely used in Yemen at that time. European and American security reports revealed that some militia units were trained in camps in Iraq and Lebanon and others were trained in the Iranian city of Hamdan. 

At their first weapons’ exhibition, in February 2017, the Houthis revealed that they possess three locally-produced developed drones. The coalition affirmed this fact when they later declared targeting the workshops and stores manufacturing these drones.

Meanwhile, US intelligence reports stated that the role of the IRGC at that time was limited to installing European propulsion and steering devices and conducting intensive training to use them properly. Most of these reports indicated that there were a few specialized experts to carry out these military incursions. 

In 2017, a report by the US-based Iranian Institute revealed that the names of the three Iranian top commanders and military experts were Col. Ridaa Bassini, Col. Ali Al-Rajabi and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Niazi. The military ranks of these three experts suggest that there is a wider network of technical elements and that they are merely supervisors of the process of transferring the required expertise.

In early 2020, the American military unsuccessfully tried to kill the senior Iranian military official, Abdul Reza Shahlai, in Yemen on the same day a drone strike killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, according to American officials. Shahlai remains a senior commander within the IRGC Qods Forces’ Unit 400 — a clandestine unit conducting missions against Western targets. At that time, Shahlai was working on establishing a wider network of IRGC specializing in such attacks and targets. Washington’s attempt to kill Shahlai came on the heels of the Houthis’ attacks on Saudi oil sites. However, many questioned the Houthis’ ability to carry out these military incursions.  

Indications of the evolution of the role of the IRGC in Yemen

These above-mentioned interim developments reflect several indicators, including:

  1. The growing presence and role of the IRGC. Previously, the IRGC provided the Houthis with logistic support; currently it possesses its own special forces units (that are similar to cluster networks). Some IRGC units are specialized in missiles, others in drones. Other units are specialized in targeting fixed targets, such as the Aramco attacks, and moving targets such as the UAE, Saudi and US ships in the Red Sea in 2016 and 2017, in which modified quality missiles C-801 and C-802 were used. 

In addition, the IRGC owns radio-controlled explosive devices camouflaged to resemble natural rocks and contain explosively formed projectiles. It also has new drones with a range of 200 kilometers and a payload of four missiles. These drones can take off from naval vessels and need specialized units in capacity development to operate them. In addition, the IRGC has units for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, securing the arrival of smuggled weapons, and training. Accordingly, there are likely at least five IRGC divisions.

  1. The scope of movement and deployment for the IRGC’s divisions is managed through a central operations room. Targeting Shahlai was an attempt to take that scope out of Sanaa, according to a US report. There are also subsidiary operation rooms in different areas, the most prominent of which is the one in Al-Hudaydah, the fourth-largest city in Yemen, and another on the west coast extending toward the south to secure the arrival of military forces and weapons. 
  2. A coalition report, issued last year, pointed out to the role of the Iranian ship Saviz, which has been anchored in the international waters of the Red Sea since 2016, in providing military and logistical support to the Houthis under the supervision of the IRGC, despite the fact that it is a merchant ship.

Future paths

The recent developments are likely to lead to a number of future paths bearing strategic shifts. The appointment of Eyrlou was seen by some as an official announcement of an Iranian military governor of Sanaa. This shift is an indication of the fact that the IRGC has now taken over all the files of the Yemeni crisis, not just the military file. This fact draws attention to several other points concerning the repercussions of this shift:  

First, the military option, rather than the political track, is now more likely. Although the six-year political track to reintegrate the Houthi militia into the political process have been stalled, there was still hope for change. However, the growing role of the IRGC on the Yemeni arena rendered the materialization of this hope almost impossible. 

Previously, the majority of estimates suggested that the Houthi militia could be separated from Iran, as it had a marginal political and military power in its hands. However, at the current stage spearheaded by Hassan Eyrlou, the militia’s decisions are clearly in the hands of the IRGC. 

Second, military escalations are on the rise. Domestic and foreign attacks, especially those of last month, intensified, and the pattern of targets changed. Worth mentioning is that the latest attacks didn’t carry a qualitative shift and the weapons used were hardly developed.

However, it is likely that these weapons will be developed in the coming stage, especially after the IRGC announced during the “Sky of State 99” maneuvers in late October it was locally developing its defensee industries. Such declarations are often accompanied by the development of the capabilities of Iranian agents in the region.

Third, the arrangement of the militia’s political position has changed. Announcing a plenipotentiary and extraordinary ambassador of Iran in Sanaa affirms the multiplicity of tasks the miltia is undertaking; however, the military and security situations predominate the scene due to their relation to the IRGC. 

Some observers opined there is conflict within the Houthi ranks between two groups. One believes Iran is playing a role in decision-making at the expense of the local leadership, and the other, despite its appreciation of the Iranian role, believes there should be a separation between the two entities.

Fourth, doctrinal manifestations are increasing. It is difficult to indicate that the Houthis’ areas of influence will witness a comprehensive doctrinal transformation process, in light of the rapprochement, not congruence with the Twelver Imami doctrine, which is a dialectical path in Yemeni history.  However, there are groups that are closer to the prevailing doctrine in the Iranian city of Qom, such as the Jarudi sect.

According to well-known Yemeni politician and writer Ali Albukhaiti, Ambassador Eyrlou is a religious leader that enjoys a good relationship with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. An indication of this is the increase of Iranian-style Islamic celebrations, the most prominent of which was the occasion of “Eid Al-Ghadir”. Moreover, the first move by the Iranian ambassador was the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in Sanaa, the biggest celebration the country witnessed since the Houthis controlled Sanaa.

In the medium term, it is likely the manifestations of rapprochement will grow with the increase in sectarian training courses and the amendment of school curricula that focus on “the race” and its centralization of power and governance historically. Thus, the sectarian issue is pivotal in the Yemeni crisis.

Indications of the timing

There are a number of indicators representing Tehran’s motives to change its policies from proxy battle management to the IRGC’s direct administration of the Yemeni crisis henceforth. To explore these motives, the time factor should be considered in a number of points:   

  1. Iranian messages to Gulf states: These messages concern normalization with Israel. Bringing the IRGC into the limelight coincided with the Gulf states’ peace agreements with Israel. Thus, Tehran’s direct message now is increasing the threats in the Persian Gulf Region through the IRGC, which was previously the case with Iraq and Lebanon. 

Iran fears other Gulf states may follow the same step in the future. This can be deduced from the statements of several Iranian officials. Over the past two months, former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs Hossein Abdollahian’s statements against Gulf states were unprecedentedly offensive and hostile. 

On 24 September 2020, Tehran announced the opening of the Martyr Seyed Majid Rahbar base, located near the port of Sirik, the nearest point to the Arabian Gulf, at a strategic point in the Strait of Hormuz.

IRGC Com. Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami stated that the aim of the base is to contribute to the enhancement of Iran’s naval operations in the fields of defence, attack, and monitoring in the Persian Gulf region. Iran began operating at this base six years ago, and it is believed it has been operating there before its formal opening was announced.

  1. Attempting to restore the balance of military power to be in favour of the Houthi militia once again after months of retreat. With the coalition forces advancing in Marib and Al-Jawf to restore the positions seized by the militia in 2020, a report by the legitimate government on 27 October 2020 indicated that the Houthis lost 600 fighters, including 154 leaders on various fronts. Consequently, there would be a tendency among the Houthis to compensate for these losses and increase their military stocks after the withdrawal of large amounts of them.

The US Navy’s announcement of the confiscation of a cache of Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles and other advanced weaponry bound for the Houthi militia in the Arabian Sea is another evidence. US Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers stated that the US Navy Central Command seized weapons from two flagless ships in the Arabian Sea, including 171 guided anti-tank missiles, eight surface-to-air missiles, and other components for missiles. This incident indicates that the Houthis are now more focussed on the domestic front. 

In sum, Iran had a number of motives and reasons to make a strategic shift to its role in Yemen. In any case, this shift cannot be underestimated. The main conclusion is that there is a trend in Iran to pursue more ambitions in Yemen. These ambitions started to appear with the IRGC’s direct administration and tight grip of the Yemeni crisis, as Iran believes Yemen to be the cornerstone of its regional project. 

Mr. Ahmed Eleiba
Chief of armament unit

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