November 23, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2631

Saudi Daily: Iran is Expanding its Activity in the Red Sea

November 23, 2009
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen | Special Dispatch No. 2631

On October 31, the Saudi daily Al-Watan published an article about an unprecedented crisis in Yemen-Iran relations, against the backdrop of the continued war between the Yemen government and the Houthi rebels in the Sa'da region of northern Yemen, and the Yemen government's accusations against Iran for its support for the rebels. The article indicates that apprehension is increasing in Saudi Arabia about the ramifications of Iran's activity in Yemen and in the Red Sea.

Following are details and excerpts from the article:

"Tehran Aims to Turn Yemen into a Regional Arena for Conflict, as Part of Its Ongoing Dispute with Several Countries in the Region"

According to the article, the Yemen government's announcement that it had captured an Iranian ship smuggling arms to the Houthis [1] meant that Yemen-Iran relations were at a turning point: "Although Tehran denied reports that an Iranian vessel carrying armor-piercing weapons to the Houthi rebels was captured off the Yemen coast, the incident added a new element to the many that are contributing to the deterioration in Yemen-Iran relations and have led them to [this critical point]. It would seem that San'a's anger over Iran's interferences is growing along with the senior Yemen officials' conviction that Iran is finding more and more way of supporting the Houthis - whether through funds, weapons, or media support.

"Tension reached its peak two weeks ago, when San'a cancelled the Yemen visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was coming to discuss relations between the two countries - which have been in a very sensitive condition indeed since the outbreak, 10 weeks ago, of the sixth war between the Yemen military and the Houthis."

According to Al-Watan, the Yemen government fears that Iran's support for the Houthis is aimed at undermining stability in Yemen, and at turning the country into an arena for wars - and thus threatening Saudi Arabia. It wrote: "San'a is still using diplomatic [language] regarding Iran's support for the Houthis, by saying that it is [certain] elements in the Iranian religious establishment that are behind it, and not the Iranian leadership. But elements who follow Yemen-Iran relations confirm that San'a's patience has been worn thin by Iran's interference in its domestic affairs, and that it is not ruling out the possibility that the Houthis have direct contacts with high-ranking Iranian officials.

"These same elements think that by stepping up its interference [in Yemen], Tehran is aiming to turn Yemen into a regional arena for conflict, as part of its ongoing dispute with several countries in the region - thus ratcheting up the tension in this region, which is sensitive in terms of the [Saudi] kingdom's security."

Eritrean Oppositionist: The IRGC Is Training Houthi Rebels in Eritrea

The paper said that Yemen's concern was increasing because of extensive Iranian activity in the Red Sea, which is aimed, among other goals, at equipping and training the Houthis: "San'a fears that there is a great regional plan aimed at turning the Red Sea region, and particularly the area near the Eritrea coast, into an Iranian sphere of influence. Recently there have been frequent reports regarding Eritrea's role in the region to secure the supply route for Iranian weapons to the rebels - weapons that arrive in boats that move between the Eritrean coast and the Maydi port in Yemen. This is in light of the [recent] capture of several boats carrying weapons to the Houthis."

The newspaper quotes Bashir Ishaq, an Eritrean oppositionist in charge of foreign relations for the Eritrean Democratic Alliance [2] ; he claimed that "there is a training camp for Houthi-supporting forces, with Iranian support and oversight, in the Dengolo region east of the city of Ginda' [some 30 km northeast of Asmara, the Eritrean capital]." Ishaq went on to warn against "the dangerous dimensions of the recent Iran-Eritrea cooperation, which constitutes a threat to the general security of the region and its countries." He added, "Iran has goals and interests that it is striving to achieve, as part of a strategy to expand its influence in the Red Sea region."

Al-Watan reported that the Yemen government has information that "there are Houthi training camps in Eritrea, and in them there are units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); it is assessed that they are training the rebels and equipping them with weapons via the Eritrean port of 'Asab. [These units] are facilitating rebel movements from 'Asab port to Maydi port in Yemen - a distance of only a few kilometers."

It should be noted that following the publication of the report in Al-Watan, Eritrea denied the existence of Iranian-run training camps for the Houthis on its soil, in a statement released by its embassy in Riyadh. It also declared that it had no intention of destabilizing Yemen or the region, and that it maintains strong ties with the other countries on the Red Sea, namely Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan. [3]

Iran is Trying to Gain Control of a Yemen Port

The report further stated that Iran was trying to gain control of a port in Yemen itself, and that it approached the Yemen government with "a request regarding Iranian investments in Maydi port, but the [Yemen] government rejected this request. Likewise, the Yemen media reported that persons close to the [Iranian] regime with links to the Houthis had purchased extensive lands in Maydi on behalf of the Houthi rebels. Moreover, following the capture of an Iranian boat near Maydi, sources in [Yemen's] Hajjah province reported that the local security authorities had apprehended several of those involved in the smuggling, transfer, and supply of arms to the rebel movement.

"This reinforces the hypothesis concerning Tehran's involvement in supporting the rebel movement by means of this [port], [located in an area] that has not received much interest on the part of the Yemen [government]. This has motivated the Yemen authorities to step up their security presence in this region, and to reinforce it so as to block any opportunity of support for the Houthis."

Al-Watan added that sources in Yemen's Hajjah province "expressed fear that the regions where military forces are not deployed will be used for smuggling arms and funds to the Houthis, particularly after increased traffic had been observed in these regions during the last war - in contrast to the current situation, during a ceasefire...

"One Houthi commander, Sheikh Abdallah Al-Mahdoun, who [had turned himself in], revealed [in October 2009] Iran's role in fanning the flames of the conflict in Sa'da, acknowledging in a newspaper interview that 'the Houthis had received unlimited help in arms and supplies, under the oversight of the IRGC and also of experts from Hizbullah.' [4] He added that 'rebel leader 'Abd Al-Malik Al-Houthi had told him that things are going their way,' and that 'this is how they will restore the culture of Persia [to its glory], and will not stop at any border.'"


[1] See "Yemen Seizes Iranian Weapons Ship," October 27, 2009,

[2] The Eritrean Democratic Alliance is an umbrella organization of 13 Eritrean opposition movements.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 1, 2009.

[4] See "Former Houthi Leader: Iran Funding, Training Houthi Rebels," October 15, 2009,

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