Sana’a: Since his GCC-brokered accession to power in February this year, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has never publicly lashed out at any state as he has done with Iran. Hadi has repeatedly accused Iran of meddling in Yemen’s affairs by supporting a faction of southern separatist movement known as the Southern Movement (Herak) that seeks to break up the country.
The Southern Movement is an umbrella group for many pro-autonomy groups who call for resurrection of the South Yemen state which united with the north in 1990. Southerners continue to complain that the North monopolised power and wealth. Most of the country’s meagre oil comes from the south.
Hadi has also accused Iran of backing rebels from the Al Houthi community, a socio-religious grouping that follows a branch of Shiite Islam, in the north.
The Yemeni government has echoed Hadi’s sentiments, especially after announcing the discovery of an alleged Iranian spy network. On October 8, Yemeni security forces said they dismantled a spy ring that included Iranians, Syrians and Yemenis disguised as investors planning to establish a factory in the country. The ministry of defence said that the ring imported items that could be used to make rockets and other weapons.
Local analysts say the relationship between Yemen and Iran is at its worst point today, largely due to regional factors.
“The current relationship between Yemen and Iran is the worst in the history of the two countries.” said Taha Bafadhel, an independent writer and journalist.
Bafadhel said that in addition to links with the Al Houthis and the Southern Movement, Iran is also suspected of having links to Al Qaida’s branch in Yemen, as well as the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Many observers believe that Al Qaida does not mind cooperating with Shiites to facilitate its plots. Also the former president is willing to establish rapport with Al Houthis and Iran in order to take revenge on his opponents who removed him from power”. Al Qaida publicly denounces Shiites as heretics and has claimed responsibility for attacks on Shiite in Iraq and elsewhere.
Bafadhel said that the Yemen-Iran ties worsen when a war of words flares up between Iran and the West.
“Whenever Iran’s relationship with its neighbours and the US deteriorate, Yemen is dragged into this wrangling. Even if a war erupted in the Gulf, Yemen will not be safe from this conflict and it will [play] a real and active part in the conflict.”
However, if this relationship improves and tension turns into peace and stability, this will positively reflect in the Yemen-Iran relationship, he said.
Adnan Al Ajam, the editor of Aden-based Al Omanaa weekly newspaper said the Yemen-Iran relationship is going through hard times due to the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen. “Iran openly supports Al Houthis while Saudis support other [Sunni] Islamists and sons of Ahmer,” he said, referring to the ten sons of the late influential tribal leader Abdullah Bin Hussain Al Ahmer.
Sadeq, the eldest son of Abdullah Al Ahmer, is the leader of the Hashid confederation which is the most powerful tribe in Yemen. In March, 2011 Sadeq and his brothers joined the rebellion against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and two months later, forces loyal to the former president clashed with Al Ahmer’s armed men in the capital. Hundreds of people were killed and injured in the clashes.
Al Ajam, however, disputed claims that the secessionist Southern Movement was tied to Iran.
“There are some pro-Iran sleeper cells in the north but there is no strong evidence of any cell in the south. Blaming the Southern Movement for receiving support from Iran is aimed at suppressing the movement by some leaders in Sana’a,” Al Ajam said, adding that President Hadi’s accusations against Iran for meddling in Yemeni affairs were aimed at appeasing regional countries.
“Yemen prefers to follow the vested interests of some countries to get moral and financial support which is needed to overcome internal political conflicts, and to maintain power in the face of many big and unceasing challenges.” Bafadhel said.
On December 9, Major General Ali Al Ahmadi, president of Yemen’s National Security Board, told Iran to stop training and funding Shiite rebels in the north. The Al Houthi rebellion began in 2004 when the group engaged in armed clashes with army in the northern province of Sa’ada. The government accused the group of trying to establish their own state in the north. Al Houthis said they were only resisting marginalisation by the central government.
“Iranians provided Al Houthis with weapons via the Medi sea port in the Red Sea. Also Iran has exploited the political turmoil in Yemen to expand its leverage in the north and it is ready to drive Al Houthis to occupy Sana’a,” Al Ajam said.
Al Ajam believes that Yemen will not sever diplomatic ties with Iran because of the Iranian support in the fields of health and electricity.