Relations between Yemen and Iran are currently witness to unprecedented tensions and strains. The last straw came on January 23, when the US Navy helped Yemeni coast guards catch a mysterious ship laden with more than 40 tons of weapons and explosives including a number of surface-to-air missiles made in Iran, a design called Misagh-2.
Emboldened by American support, Yemeni officials now say that the ship, Jihan 1, came from Iran and was heading to Houthi Shi’ite rebels in Sa’ada, north Yemen. However, the investigation and interrogation of the eight Yemeni crewmen is not finished.
On February 9, 2013, I was invited as a journalist to attend a reception at the Iranian embassy in Sana’a on the occasion of the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution of Iran. Many Yemeni and Arab and international diplomats attended the party.
But Yemenis and Iranians were still affected by the tense and strained official relations between the two states. The Iranian ambassador, Mohamoud Hassan Ali Zada, and the representative of the Yemeni government, Minister of State Hassan Sharaf Al-Deen, did not deliver speeches before dinner, as usual. They just listened to national anthem of the two countries and left the guests to dinner and private conversation. Speaking privately, one of the Iranian diplomats told me and a group of journalists over dinner that the controversial ship Jihan 1 came from Spain, and not from Iran.
The most important question in Yemen now is who was going to take that huge consignment of weapons, and what for? And why all this clamor about this alleged Iranian shipment, while there was only very little about three shipments of Turkish weapons seized in Yemen over the second half of 2012. No results of the alleged investigations into these shipments have been published.
The political activist Ali Al-Bukhaiti did not exclude the possibility that Jihan 1 came from Iran, but he said the weapons were bound not for Yemen but for Gaza, in Palestine. “My observation is that this huge quantity of weapons was heading to the Islamic movement of Jihad, which is closer to Tehran now,” said Al-Bukhaiti, who is a Houthi nominee to the Yemen National Dialogue scheduled to start in March.
He ruled out the possibility that the shipment was for Houthi rebels in Sa’ada. “Iran did not send weapons to Al-Houthi in the sixth war of 2010, when Al-Houthi was at war with Yemeni troops and Saudi Arabia, the enemy of Iran,” he said. “Iran is not this stupid to send this big quantity of weapons to provide evidence easily about itself. Iran could have sent money to Al-Houthis who would buy any weapons they want from local markets or from African smugglers.”
However, some observers view the whole issue as evidence of American influence in the region. They cite the Russian and Chinese refusal to condemn Iran in a statement from the UN Security Council after news spread of the alleged Iranian shipment. These observers also blame Yemeni officials for accusing Iran without evidence.
Yemen does not need to make enemies with the regional powers like Iran, but it needs to build its institutions and its army and security, observers say. “Yemen is losing Iran to appease Saudi Arabia and [the] US,” said Hassan Zaid, secretary general of Al-Haq party.
Many politicians and activists are surprised by the clamor over the alleged Iranian cargo, while at the same time at least three Turkish shipments of weapons received less attention. The weapons seized from those shipments included silencers that were used in political assassinations. A total of 74 military and security officials were assassinated by motorcycle-riding gunmen with silencers during 2012 and the beginning of this year. The last one (number 74) was Khaled Sewari, a counter-terrorism official who was killed on Wednesday February 13, 2013, in the middle of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.
“I wonder about all this clamor about this shipment of weapons, when we all know that Yemen is full of weapons now from everywhere,” said the activist, Rashed. “The government now is talking day and night to convince us that this shipment came from Iran, but it did not tell us anything about at least three cargos of weapons that came from Turkey . . . Is that because the rulers in Yemen now are brotherhood, and the rulers in Turkey are brotherhood too?”
The Turkish government denies any involvement with the Turkish-made weapons that have been seized in Yemen, and has pledged to investigate and prosecute anyone involved in the smuggling, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry issued at the end of January. According to some analysts, the Turkish government is reluctant to involve itself in Yemen. Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Centre, a think tank in Ankara, told Dubai’s The National newspaper that this made it unlikely that the arms were shipped to Yemen as part of government policy. “They know it’s a difficult conflict, and they are trying to keep out of it,” Ayhan said.