Tehran says it is not supplying weapons to Yemeni rebels, but worries about international efforts to destabilize it
Iranian officials and analysts on Tuesday rejected claims of supplying weapons to Yemeni rebels and mocked Saudi warnings of retaliation for a weekend missile attack.
But while deriding the threat of direct Saudi military action, analysts in Tehran did express worry about what they said were increasingly coordinated efforts by the United States and its allies to destabilize the country.
The latest flashpoint in the ever-volatile region came on Sunday when Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired seven missiles into Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh said the missiles were Iranian-made and vowed “to respond against Iran at the right time and right place.” Iran supports the Houthis, but denies any military ties.
“These war-mongering and irresponsible remarks can be followed up legally at the international level,” said foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi in a statement. “The aim of such claims by Saudi Arabia is to divert public opinion from the atrocities [they] are committing in Yemen,” added Yadollah Javani, a political officer for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, according to the conservative Tasnim news agency. “The reality is that the nation of Yemen is standing up to Saudi aggression and has managed to build defense tools by relying on its own capabilities, including missile power, and this is the very thing Saudi Arabia never imagined,” he added.
Javani said it was impossible to send weapons to Yemen due to the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, which has been engaged in an aerial bombing campaign against the Houthis since 2015.
Analysts in Tehran dismissed the threats from Riyadh, saying the Yemen conflict had exposed Saudi Arabia’s weakness. “The Saudis are incapable of defeating one of the poorest countries in the world,” said Mohammad Marandi, a political analyst at the University of Tehran. “The people of Yemen are fighting the Saudis in their slippers. They don’t even have boots. Even though the Saudis have hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons from Western countries to massacre these people and impose starvation, they have failed completely,” he added.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen says it does what it can to avoid civilian casualties and investigate civilian deaths, but has been accused by rights groups of possible war crimes.
Military confrontation aside, there are concerns in Iran over what appears to be the increasingly coordinated attempts to target Tehran by Gulf Arab monarchies, the United States and Israel. “What I am concerned about is the Saudis’ intensified efforts to unite all anti-Iran elements including non-state actors… with the political and military support of its allies, particularly the U.S.,” said Mojtaba Mousavi, a Tehran-based analyst who founded the Iran View journal.
He cited the alleged support Riyadh has given to anti-Iran jihadist militias and the exiled opposition group, the People’s Mujahideen, considered a terrorist organization by Tehran and blamed for stoking recent protests in the country.
“While a direct military war against Iran, either by Saudi or the U.S., is unlikely, there are efforts to destabilize Iran by empowering militia groups and increasing economic pressure on its society,” said Mousavi.
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to walk away from a 2015 nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran when it next comes up for renewal in May.
Mousavi said the economic pressure on Iran was aimed at reducing public support for the Revolutionary Guards and their ballistic missile program.
Widespread protests in Iran in December and January included chants against Iran’s overseas interventions, which some Iranians see as draining much-needed money from the struggling economy.
Iran’s enemies are seeking “to persuade the Iranian government and people to decrease the role of the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards] and their military capabilities like the missile program,” said Mousavi.
Such efforts are not new, he said, but “a coalition of the U.S., Israel and Arab states is what makes it different from the past.”
There are recurrent rumors that Washington has worked to broker ties between the Gulf monarchies and Israel—who still have no diplomatic relations—in order to better confront common foe Iran.
European governments have meanwhile sought to salvage the nuclear deal by putting fresh pressure on Iran to curb the Guards’ regional activities and missile tests, in the hope this will appease Trump.
Iran’s conservatives worry that President Hassan Rouhani, who has already clashed with the Guards over their intrusion into the economic sphere, is poorly placed to confront this outside pressure since he has staked his legacy on efforts to rebuild trade ties with Europe. Rouhani “relies too much on friendly diplomatic initiatives which may lead him to compromise on these serious issues,” said Mousavi.