RIYADH // In what Arab leaders view as another indication of Iran's expansionist foreign policy aims, a senior Iranian official has criticised Saudi Arabia's recent offensive against Yemeni rebels and offered Iran's help to "restore security" in Yemen. The remarks by the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, who addressed the issue on two consecutive days, have reinforced concerns in the region that Iran is seeking another opportunity to interfere in Arab affairs, as it has done in Lebanon and Iraq.
His comments came as Saudi Arabia let it be known that its navy has begun patrolling Yemen's Red Sea north-west coast with orders to search ships suspected of ferrying arms to the Yemeni rebels. The naval action was reported on Tuesday by the Associated Press quoting an unidentified Saudi government adviser. The government has not officially confirmed the move, which would give an added dimension to Saudi Arabia's recent military air-and-ground offensive against the Yemeni rebels, known as al Houthis after their late leader.
"If it's true, it's a very large escalation and if the Saudis are playing it smart, they are going to try and - find a smoking gun" to prove that Iran is supplying the rebels with arms, said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma) in Dubai. "We have a war of rhetoric and a lot of people with vested interest want to make this into a proxy fight," added Mr Karasik, noting that the Iranians are "being very aggressive" in competing with Saudi Arabia to be the dominant regional power.
On Tuesday, Mr Mottaki denied that Iran is supporting the Yemeni rebels and, without naming it, warned Saudi Arabia not to interfere in Yemen. "The regional countries and especially the neighbouring countries, we recommend seriously they not interfere in the internal issues of Yemen and instead try to restore stability in Yemen. Those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows."
The next day, Mr Mottaki struck a more conciliatory stance and called for a "collective approach" to restore peace and stability in Yemen. But given the huge distrust Arab leaders harbour for Iran, Mr Mottaki's offer is likely to be taken as unwanted meddling in Arab matters. "Iran is prepared to co-operate with the government of Yemen and other nations in order to restore security" there, Mr Mottaki said. "The Iranians are ready to pounce" on the messy situation in northern Yemen, said Christian Koch, the director of international studies at Gulf Research Centre, a Saudi-leaning think tank in Dubai.
Although there is no "concrete evidence" of direct Iranian support for the rebels right now, if they can hold out against Yemeni and Saudi offensives, they could become "a bridgehead into which the Iranians can funnel money and arms", Mr Koch added. As Zaidi Muslims, the Houthi rebels are not orthodox Shiites, but "the Iranians try to promote themselves as protectors of Shia everywhere," Mr Koch noted.
The rebels' leader, Abdul Malik al Houthi, denied in an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera that his organisation is equipped by Iran. "We affirm that whoever tries to add a sectarian dimension to our position is a liar and tries to sow sedition. We respect all the sons of our nation in the Arab region - irrespective of the school of thought or ideology," Mr al Houthi said. "We do not have any links with any foreign political agenda regarding our position in the current confrontation."
The Houthis have been battling Yemeni troops for five years in a bid to end what they say is government discrimination against them. The Saudis have watched this rebellion and Yemen's deteriorating internal stability with growing impatience. On November 3, some al Houthi rebels crossed into Saudi territory and attacked a border guard patrol, killing one and wounding 11 others. Riyadh responded decisively with a major military campaign to dislodge the rebels from Saudi terrority.
The Saudis have not officially addressed rebel claims, supported by diplomatic sources in Yemen, that their air force also raided rebel camps well inside Yemen. The offensive has abated somewhat, but in a visit to Saudi troops in Jizan province on Tuesday, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the Saudi assistant defence minister, said that his forces "are not going to stop the bombing until the Houthis retreat tens of kilometres inside their border".
Iran's support for the Houthis so far appears to be mainly financial and non-governmental. According to Gulf States Newsletter, the "rebels get financial and logistical support through local Shia religious taxes and overseas contributions from the diaspora, particularly Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. This money is spent at arms souks in Yemen and, increasingly, in the Horn of Africa." The newsletter also offered an insight as to why the Saudis are reportedly mounting naval interdiction on the Yemeni coast. "Money and arms reach the Houthis via the harbour at Midi in north-western Yemen," the newsletter reported.
"It was in this area," it added, "that the Yemeni coast guard boarded and searched the Monady, a small Iranian registered trawler that was allegedly found to contain RPGs and 107mm rockets. The government said the vessel, which originated in Sharjah and crossed Oman and Eritrea, was proof of its long-standing claims of Iranian support for the Houthis." The newsletter also supported rebels' claims of Saudi support for the Yemeni government's latest push to suppress the rebellion, saying that Riyadh had been giving Yemen about US$1.2 million (Dh4m) a month since August, as well as intelligence support.
The newsletter added that the Saudis had "for the first time on 19 October, used artillery and helicopter gun ships to strike Houthi groups on the border". @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org