On Wednesday January 23, 2013, military forces from Yemen intercepted and captured a ship carrying a rather large cache of weapons. According to the Yemeni embassy in Washington, D.C., the cache included surface-to-air missiles, military-grade explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and bomb-making equipment. According to a Reuters report, the operation to seize the weapons was conducted in coordination with the U.S. Navy, with a navy destroyer in the vicinity.
The weapons are believed to be from Iran and were meant to reach insurgents inside Yemen, most likely the Houthis — Shiite movement in the northern region of Yemen. The Houthis have reportedly turned Yemen into a new battlefield in the everlasting struggle between Iran and Western nations and the Arab regimes they support. Iran denied any involvement in the situation.
Whether this was a smuggling attempt or not, it is another microcosm of the “relationship” between the United States and Iran. During the 2012 election cycle, Iran was mentioned frequently by both candidates, and seemed to boast the unofficial title of the most important foreign policy issue. North Korea’s recent threats to test weapons in the explicit direction of the U.S. have deeper implications for the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The Middle Eastern country is heavily focused on possessing nuclear arms capabilities, and the U.S. certainly has an interest in preventing that.
Let’s think for a moment that this was indeed a smuggling attempt by Iran. One has to wonder: what are Iran’s goals in actions such as these? What are they attempting to gain from this?
The U.S. already has conducted numerous drone strikes in Yemen, including one that took out a U.S. citizen. There is certainly a willingness to take out targets there. It is no secret that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia actively and covertly support the Yemeni government. The Reuters report from the situation also featured this quote from a U.S. official:
“This demonstrates the ever pernicious Iranian meddling in other countries in the region.”
The conclusion seems to be the following: Iran is taking on the role of opportunist spoiler in Yemen. Iran had previously been accused of supporting the secessionist movement in southern Yemen, which has led to large public demonstrations recently and now poses a legitimate threat to the Yemeni government. Aden Live, the leading television station in southern Yemen, is managed and run by a Yemeni political figure who had not hidden facts about receiving funding from Iran.
By attempting to send weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, Iran is trying to catch a swig of rebellious political momentum in Yemen to further spur a chaotic and unstable environment. This would allow Iran to maintain influence over its allies and disrupt the work of its enemies, particularly the U.S. This tactic could be effective for Iran if the weapons had reached their desired destination. But since they did not, Iran is stuck denying involvement as others point fingers at them. Although recent news reports have told us that our attention should be directed towards Al-Qaeda’s apparent surge in Mali, the U.S. should consider how serious the rise of the Houthis may be and what it could mean for the current Yemeni government that they support. If Iran is serious about further influencing events in Yemen to their favor, they will certainly try again.