By Ahmad Rafat
Despite strong protests by the international community, Iran continues to expand its sphere of influence in the Middle East. “We have advisers in Yemen,” said Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC], in recent remarks.
In the lexicon of the Iranian authorities, the word “adviser” refers to the deployment of troops and the supply of military arsenals, be it in Syria or Iraq.
In recent months, the Islamic Republic has stepped up its military support to the Shia Houthi rebels [officially known as the Ansar Allah]. A dozen Iranian military advisers have reportedly been killed in the Yemeni civil war. Tehran has always denied providing military assistance to the Houthis.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates [UAE] army has brought down a number of Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs, commonly known as drones], whose existence clearly proves the country’s military involvement in Yemen. Furthermore, in February and March 2017, U.S. and French Navy ships intercepted and seized three Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf with a shipment of arms destined for the Houthi rebels.
In early November, Houthi rebels took responsibility for launching a Scud missile [Burkan 2-H] with a range of more than 800 kilometers at Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. The incident raised tensions between the kingdom and Tehran. Experts believe that the IRGC’s military technicians have helped the Houthis increase the range of their Scud missiles from 700 to 1,000 kilometers. On November 30, the Saudi Royal Air Force intercepted another missile reportedly fired by the Houthis at a military base in the city of Khamis.
It is not surprising that commander Jafari would admit to having dispatched advisers to Yemen. Other senior officials have also hinted at Iran’s involvement in the region. During a televised interview, President Hassan Rouhani said: “We need a two-pronged diplomatic and military approach to solving the regional problem.” He added: “Saudi Arabia has failed in Iraq, Qatar, Syria and Lebanon. It vilifies Iran in an effort to mask its mistakes.”
Iran’s regional strategy is in direct response to two key Saudi-sponsored meetings in November 2017. On November 19, Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to discus ways of confronting Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, who in their view are interfering in their internal affairs. During a meeting of the Arab League in Riyadh on November 27, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa said: “Iran’s biggest arm in the region at the moment is the terrorist Hezbollah.” Saudi Arabia also issued a statement warning that it “will not stand idly by in the face of Iranian aggression.”
Iran, Qatar, Syria and Iraq were not invited to the meeting in Riyadh. The Yemeni representative to the meeting said: “The League should focus its efforts on fighting the three main sponsors of terrorism in the region, namely ISIS [the Islamic State], Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Tehran and Riyadh are also engaged in a proxy war in Lebanon. Although Prime Minister Saad Hariri withdrew his resignation after returning to Lebanon, the problems of that country are far from over. In a statement, Hariri said: “All members of government have agreed to dissociate themselves from all conflicts, disputes, wars or the internal affairs of brother Arab countries, in order to preserve Lebanon’s economic and political relations.” Hariri also called for the disarming of Hezbollah. He asserted: “Lebanon cannot successfully deal with the Hezbollah as long as the organization continues to do Iran’s bidding in Iraq, Syria and other countries.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has called on the country’s European allies to “counter Iran’s regional aggression.” Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C., Secretary Tillerson said: “The JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal] is not the focus of our relations with Tehran any longer. We aim to confront a wide range of threats posed by the Islamic Republic. We ask our European partners to help us in our efforts.”
Tillerson warned: “Not just the U.S. and Europe, but all countries should condemn Iran’s aggressive actions in the Middle East, its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorist organizations and militia groups in Syria and Iraq.”
Most European countries, with the exception of France, have distanced themselves from the U.S. as regards the JCPOA. They have vowed to adhere to the terms of the nuclear agreement, despite their concerns about Tehran’s actions in the region. In a recent interview with the France-24 television channel, President Emanuel Macron, said: “Iran isn’t one of our allies. It must halt its missile program. Tehran must also stop being a destabilizing force in the region.”
In an interview with the Tel-Aviv-based daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed that Iran’s presence in Syria was limited to only a few military advisers. By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of the Mossad [the Israeli intelligence network] Yossi Cohen have repeatedly warned against “the Iranian military’s onslaught on Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.”
In the same interview, Lieberman asserted: “With the exception of a few advisers, Iran doesn’t have a military force in Syria. We wouldn’t allow it.”
It is not clear how Israel would prevent the presence of Iranian military in Syria. It is rather difficult to reconcile this claim with Lieberman’s recent request that the Israeli Army’s budget be increased by $1.4 billion in order to “fight the IRGC and the Iranian backed forces in Syria and Golan Heights.”