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Yemen has a long way to go in its struggle for a peaceful transition and stability as both the internal and external powers are trying to exploit the country’s political turmoil. The country’s interim President Abd Rabbuh Hadi, who came to power through a GCC-sponsored initiative on February 25, faces unceasing challenges now that the power-obsessed Iran eyes Yemen as a perfect target to achieve its ambitious goal in the Middle East.
The already soured relations between Sana’a and Tehran have worsened after President Hadi accused the latter of supporting armed, and other political movements by providing military and financial assistance to further spread chaos to derail the country’s progress.
Iran, on the other hand, summoned Yemeni envoy criticising Hadi’s accusations as “baseless”. Tehran later denied the allegations saying their role was to restore security and stability in the war-torn country.
However, the latest shift of events revealed that Iran played a part in the rebellion in Yemen. On October 8, Yemeni security forces dismantled a spy ring led by Iranians disguised as investors planning to put up a factory in the country.
The spy ring, whose members also include Syrians and Yemenis, was busted after they started to import equipments that could be used in making military weapons. Yemen has so far uncovered five networks working for Iran who will soon undergo trial, including the recently discovered spy ring.
Hadi then repeated his call for the Iranian government to stay out of its internal affairs, stressing that it will pay a price if it continued to interfere. The United States, for its part, asserted that Iran is backing the Shia Houthi rebels in northern Yemen and the southern separatist movement known as Hirak in a move to expand its influence in the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, the US said Iranians are providing huge military aid to separatists in Yemen through operatives communicating with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Hadi’s administration feared Iran’s interference will prompt Al Qaeda to intervene in the fragile state.
Iran’s regional involvement is rooted in its desire to strengthen its hold on distant allies. The impending fall of the Assad regime in Syria prompted Iran to turn its interest to Bahrain, Yemen and the Horn of Africa to secure influence in the Arabian Peninsula. Iran seeks to establish its presence in countries where there is a Shia population like in Yemen.
Iran sees Yemen as a springboard to attain its ambition in the Middle East and beyond. With its hand on Yemen, which is strategically situated near rival Saudi Arabia and with controls over key shipping lanes, Red Sea littoral, Iran is one step closer to becoming a superpower in the region.
Sunni-majority Yemen will serve as the ground of Shia-dominated Iran to pose security threats to its regional opponent Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Iran strives to deepen its leverage in the Middle East while limiting foreign role to pave the way for exporting Iranian Islamic revolution worldwide and mould the region in its religious ideologies.
In the wake of Arab Spring, the lack of a power centre brings Iran closer to its goal of obtaining support from Arab neighbours by increasing its influence in troubled nations, and at the same time protecting its own vested interests and ensuring that there will be no international interference that would threaten its bid.
Iran’s growing involvement in the region was evident in the chaos that engulfed Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, not to mention Yemen, when it backed specific minorities against the rest of the country which led to massive civilian clashes and sectarian violence. In Syria, Iran supports President Bashar Al Assad and his loyalists by providing technical equipment and paramilitary training to Syrian security forces. Iranians were also reported to have supplied electronic equipment to Damascus to obstruct Internet access to prevent news about Assad forces attacking innocent civilians from spilling out to foreign media. Tehran was also allegedly coordinating with Shia demonstrators in Bahrain to overthrow the government, which has firm connections with Saudi Arabia. And the list of Iran’s involvement in neighbouring countries’ internal affairs goes on.
Iran saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to extend its military reach to safeguard its nuclear ambition and liberally carry out its plan of preserving the Islamic regime in the Middle East.
The international community deemed Iran’s role in Yemen and other Arab countries as an attempt to destabilise the region. Tehran, a proliferator of ballistic missile technology, is threatening the US with its potential nuclear programmes. The US fears that Iran would motivate its allies to develop nuclear weapons that will jeopardise regional and national security.
The US, alongside the European Union and the United Nations, tightened its sanctions by imposing severe restrictions on trade including the export of crude oil, on banking services, energy sectors and technologies to pressure the country to stop its nuclear programme. Iran has defied international obligations by developing nuclear weapons and augmenting its military capabilities to support factions in fragile Arab countries to create and sustain discord and instability.
Yemen may be far from the finishing line but its small steps have raised the hopes of many Yemenis that the country will be able to maintain its steady progress and chances are, when the national dialogue succeeds, it can finally conquer the internal and external forces that are blocking its path towards peaceful transition and absolute reforms.
For now, Yemen still needs to strengthen and reunite its military forces while working on reviving the economy. The upcoming national dialogue due in November will help the country to address its inherent problems, including issues of governance system, the constitution and more importantly, the humanitarian crisis. The dialogue will decide whether Yemen is ready to take another step forward or will end up as a failure. As for Iran, it would be unwise if they continue to meddle in Yemen’s political affairs as the country is backed by the power of the Yemeni Arab people. As Hadi pointed out, Iran should stay out of Yemen.