Yemen: Iranian Influence Fades


November 29, 2022: Even with the ceasefire, over 300 civilians were killed or wounded this year. Shia rebel attacks did not increase much after they refused to renew the ceasefire on October 2nd.

Continued lack of fighting has benefited both the government forces and the Shia rebels. That’s because Iran is in chaos from growing unrest caused by more and more Iranians, especially women but now the vital oil workers too, joining protests demanding an end to the religious dictatorship and its IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which, among many other things, protects Iran’s religious government from angry Iranians. For the last month the IRGC has had a hard time doing that, even though they make more arrests and use gunfire against the protestors. That has not worked so far.

Iran also agreed to supply Russia with several thousand Shahed 131 and 136 cruise missiles for use in Ukraine. These are actually UAVs that are used mainly for one-way missions carrying explosives and were, until recently, a major smuggled export to the Yemen Shia rebels. All this means that Iran is not supplying the Shia rebels with sufficient weapons to continue its extortion tactics that made Shia efforts self-sustaining. The rebels are vulnerable without Iranian weapon shipments and cash, the Shia rebels are vulnerable. This has led to a rebel truce with Saudi Arabia and increased attacks on the Yemeni government oil operations.

It's unclear how long Iranian support will be absent. Since the ceasefire was last renewed in early August, Iran has become a major source of weapons for Russian forces in Ukraine and in mid-September protests erupted throughout Iran demanding an end to the government. If that uprising succeeds using tactics similar to the one in 1979 that put the religious dictatorship in power, the Shia rebels in Yemen will have to negotiate an end to the war or be crushed by government troops and Saudi airpower.

The ceasefire was first agreed to in April and renewed in June and August for another two months. The UN sponsored peace talks were to consider a six-month extension but the Iran-backed Shia rebels turned down that proposal, insisting that the ceasefire was not working for them. The rebels demanded large cash payments and other concessions if there was to be another ceasefire extension. The government refused. Some fighting resumed after the ceasefire expired, mainly in the usual war zones; Taiz province in the south and Marib in central Yemen. At least twenty people have died and even more wounded in those areas since October 2nd. The Saudis have not resumed their airstrikes, nor have the rebel’s resumed attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia or the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This turned out to be the result of direct negotiations between the rebels and the Saudis. This was the first time the rebels and Saudis worked out such a deal.

Iran does not openly participate in the ceasefire talks but controls what the Shia rebels will agree to. Iran opposed any ceasefire terms that further disrupt Iranian weapons smuggling. Iran wants to continue smuggling in ballistic and cruise missiles, which are brought in broken down, to be assembled under Iranian supervision in Shia territory and then fired at targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Shia rebels have suffered heavy casualties since 2021 because of failed efforts to gain more territory as well as defending areas they have long occupied.

The April ceasefire and extensions were generally adhered to and that could be measured by the reduction (by more than 50 percent) in civilian casualties. This is not usually the case. Past ceasefires were seen as futile because the Shia rebels violated so many of them and, until recently, showed no interest in change, especially since Iran support is crucial to the maintenance of the Shia military efforts.

The current peace talks are different because the Shia and the Yemeni government both agree that allowing Yemen to be a battleground for the Iranian campaign to replace Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Moslem world is not good for Yemen. Then there is the situation in Iran. Yemeni Shia are aware of significant popular opposition in Iran to the Yemen war. The Saudis and UAE were always reluctant participants in the war but could not withdraw as long as Iran was attacking them from Shia rebel-controlled northern Yemen. This encouraged the Yemen government to seriously consider some kind of Shia autonomy and sufficient guarantees that the autonomy would not later be taken away. The problem with the autonomy proposal is that Iran has a veto. Now that veto seems to have lost much of its effectiveness.

In the past Shia rebels risked an internal civil war if they attempted to defy Iranian orders. These orders are delivered by the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, the rebel Yemen capital. The current Iranian ambassador is a former Quds Force general and many other “diplomats” are veteran Iranian Quds Force officers. The Quds Force is a component of the IRGC that specializes in instigating, supervising, and sustaining foreign rebellions and terror campaigns that might expand Iranian power and keep potential enemies on the defensive. Yemen was one of the least expensive Quds Force operations but with continued economic sanctions, Russian weapons purchases and a nationwide rebellion in Iran, support for Yemeni rebels is on hold.

Iran continues trying to supply the rebels with GPS-controlled UAVs that are turned into flying bombs for attacks on targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. At times the attacks on Saudi targets are particularly heavy. There was one day when Saudi air defenses detected and destroyed 17 of these UAVs, which the rebels did not try to use in swarm attacks to overwhelm air defenses. This often works inside Yemen, but rarely against Saudi targets.

Iran smuggles disassembled UAVs into Yemen on fishing boats and dhows (similar in size but just carrying cargo), where the components are easier to conceal. Some of these have been found. A growing number of smuggler boats are discovered because the Americans have developed a system for tracking such boats coming out of Iranian ports, particularly Jask, which is currently the main port where fishing boats and have their smuggled cargo carefully hidden. The Americans have also been obtaining more information from inside Iran about the techniques for hiding smuggled items. All this costs Iran a lot of money. They have to pay shipyard technicians to modify the boats to carry smuggled cargo. The crews of these boats are also paid a lot for the risks of getting caught and jailed. Iran has been short of cash since economic sanctions were revived in 2020 and the higher cost of preparing the boats and bonuses for the crews limits the amount of smuggled cargo that reaches the Yemen rebels.

IRGC leaders were reluctant to give up gains made in Yemen and may have been told that they could revive support for the Yemeni Shia after the economic sanctions on Iran are lifted. Because of these sanctions, Quds force saw its budget cut by half since 2017, forcing major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Yemen was always the least expensive Quds operation and did not suffer noticeable aid cuts. Yemen was the only IRGC operation that was able to attack arch-enemy Saudi Arabia directly and that counted for something. The Yemen operation was allowed to continue. The new (since January 2021) American government believed they could negotiate an Iranian departure from Yemen, Iraq and Syria. So far Iran has refused to consider giving up their operations in places like Yemen.

Iran had already found an effective way to attack Saudi Arabia by arming Shia rebels in Yemen with over a thousand ballistic missiles and UAVs since 2016. Most of these were aimed at southwestern Saudi Arabia. Less than one percent of those UAVs and missiles hit anything of consequence in Saudi Arabia. Iran is seeking to carry out a similar campaign against Israel using Iran-backed militias in Syria. That has not been working out so far because Israeli intelligence capabilities and airstrikes have been much more effective in Syria than Saudi efforts in Yemen. This despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia have similar aircraft, smart bombs and air defense systems.

November 27, 2022: In the north (the capital, Sanaa) Shia rebels held a public funeral for two colonels and seven lower ranking officers killed in recent fighting. No details were released on where and how the officers died. Since the ceasefire ended there has been more fighting but rarely are so many rebel commanders killed at once. This indicates a surprise attack on a headquarters or a convoy transporting the officers.

November 25, 2022: In the south (Taiz province), the provincial capital, Taiz City, once more has easy access to an airport. The Shia rebels continue to block access to airports south of the city, which was a violation of the ceasefire the rebels got away with. Today the government opened the new Al Makha airport, which is north of Taiz City and close to the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Which is where most of the foreign aid for rebel-controlled areas arrives. The new airport continues to be expanded to include facilities for commercial cargo and passenger flights.

November 24, 2022: The head of the Yemeni military blames Iran for the end of the ceasefire on October 2nd and subsequent rebel attacks. The rebels receive most of their weapons and some cash from Iran.

November 21, 2022: In the south (Hadhramaut province) Shia rebels apparently tried to attack an oil tanker that had entered the port of Al Dhaba and take a load of oil. It is unclear if the explosions, which did not damage the tanker, were caused by UAVs or remotely controlled bomb boats. The tanker returned to a waiting area offshore. The Shia rebels insist that they should get a share of the cash made by selling Yemeni oil.

November 10, 2022: In the south (Shabwa Province) Shia UAV cruise missiles exploded near a port area. The Shia rebels are attacking oil operations to prevent the government from obtaining cash to pay its government employees. This is something the Shia rebels can’t do and their government employees are angry and uncooperative over this.

November 8, 2022: Two American warships in the Gulf of Oman intercepted and searched a fishing boat headed for Yemen. The ship was coming from the nearby port of Jask in western Iran. Jask had become the main location where smuggler ships were loaded with hidden cargo for Shia rebels in Yemen. After a search that took a week, the well-hidden cargo of 70 tons of ammonium perchlorate (used for rocket fuel) and 100 tons of urea fertilizer (used for explosives) was found. This was the first time the international naval blockade of Yemen had discovered a smuggler transporting rocket fuel. The Shua rebels were getting this stuff for years and it was unclear how Iran was getting it to Yemen.

Smuggled weapons include, since 2017, Iranian naval mines and some crude locally fabricated naval mines. The naval mines are a recognized danger to all ships and in early 2020 shipping companies warned their ship captains that naval mines, of the contact type, were floating into the Red Sea from the north Yemen coast. That coast is off the Shia rebel home province of Sadaa and the rebels had been releasing groups of moored and un-moored mines in an effort to disrupt Red Sea shipping traffic to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The currents generally flow north in this part of the Red Sea, towards the major Saudi Red Sea port and the entrance to the Suez Canal. The Shia rebels would drop Iranian moored mines into the sea at night. These mines are designed to have their weighted base sink to the bottom of shallow (less than 20 meters) water. A chain is used to keep the mine near the surface. Some of these contact mines were released to float on the surface while others had their chains break, turning the moored mine into a free floating one. These mines proved most dangerous to Yemeni fishing boats, including the ones Iran used to smuggle weapons in. Dozens of fishermen were killed when their boats hit one of these contact mines. These mines are a danger to the blockade warships as well as commercial shipping. Most commercial shipping is moved in very large ships which the contact mines inflicted minor hull damage. During 2020 there was a major effort to locate and neutralize these free-floating mines. By the end of 2020 over 160 mines were found and neutralized. The rebels continued putting mines in the water during 2021 and the number found and neutralized remained at 2020 levels. The Shia rebels continued putting these mines in the water after the 2022 American announcement that they would stop treating the rebels like a terrorist organization. That didn’t work and the mines and bomb boats continued to be used, but in smaller numbers. The use of naval mines has diminished because they are not much of a threat to warships (which are constantly on the lookout for them) and commercial ships that are too big to sink with these mines.

October 24, 2022: The Yemen government blamed Iran for supplying the UAV cruise missions used in recent attacks on Yemen economic targets. The attacks were against known port facilities that there were GPS coordinates for. These attacks damaged port facilities that halted use of the port and will require weeks or longer to repair.

October 22, 2022: The Yemen government designated the Shia rebels as a terrorist organization because of its attacks on economic targets after the rebels refused to renew the ceasefire on October 2nd and the subsequent rebel violence. At the same time the rebels have continued the ceasefire when it comes to attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia. This was the result of direct talks between the rebels and Saudis. The ceasefire included a halt of Saudi airstrikes against the rebels.

Yemeni officials blame this rebel violence on the months of anti-government demonstrations in Iran. This, the Yemenis believe, has made the Iranian government desperate for a win somewhere. Yemen seemed the most likely place where Iran could claim some kind of victory to show Iranians that all the money spent on foreign wars in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Ukraine are worth it.

October 21, 2022: In the south (Hadhramaut province) Shia rebels took responsibility for two cruise missiles (UAVs carrying explosives on one-way missions) exploding near where a Greek oil tanker was taking on a cargo of oil at the port of Al Dhaba. The explosions did some damage and the tanker halted loading operations and moved out to out to sea, about 20 kilometers from the port. The tanker could not return and resumed loading until the damage was repaired.




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