Ira­nian, Amer­i­can links eyed in downed drone in Ye­men

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - By Ia­son Athanasiadis

TEHRAN — When the Ye­meni Akhbar al-Yaum (Daily News) re­ported on its front page the March 28 down­ing of an Ira­nian drone by Ye­men’s armed forces in re­mote south­east Ye­men, it shed rare light on one of the murkier bat­tle­fields of the “cold war” be­tween Sunni Mus­lims and Shi’ites.

The news­pa­per, known for its close gov­ern­ment con­tacts, said: “The drone that was brought down in Hadra­mawt be­longs to the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran.” Soon af­ter the news­pa­per re­port, the Mid­dle East Newsline agency quoted Ye­meni sources who ac­cused Ira­nian forces of con­duct­ing re­con­nais­sance mis­sions on mil­i­tary and strate­gic tar­gets in Ye­men.

The next day, Ye­men’s Ara­bi­clan­guage al-Ayyam news­pa­per re­ported that the downed drone was Amer­i­can. Quot­ing a high-level gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, it said a group of hunters had stum­bled upon the wing­less drone and no­ti­fied the near­est mil­i­tary base. Ye­men’s De­fense Min­istry re­fused to com­ment as ru­mors flew in that coun­try.”

The claim by al-Ayyam (the Days) that the downed un­manned ae­rial ve­hi­cle (UAV) was U.S.- made was con­firmed to The Wash­ing­ton Times by a Ye­meni source close to Sheik al-Ah­mar, an in­flu­en­tial tribal leader.

“The Ira­nian UAVs are lit­tle more than model air­craft with ex­tremely shor t range,” said James Spencer, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst spe­cial­iz­ing in de­fense and se­cu­rity is­sues.

U.S.-made UAVs have op­er­ated over Ye­men since at least 2002, when al Qaeda mem­ber Si­nan alHarithi, mas­ter­mind of the USS Cole bomb­ing on Oct. 12, 2001, was as­sas­si­nated by a U.S.launched Preda­tor mis­sile.

The al-Ayyam ar­ti­cle also spec­u­lated that the drone might have been French, be­cause of the French naval pres­ence in wa­ters south of Aden, a port in Ye­men.

Sunni Mus­lims make up most of Ye­men’s 19 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion, with Shi’ites ac­count­ing for about 15 per­cent. Ye­men has been a staunch U.S. ally since Septem­ber 11, and has made sev­eral anti-Ira­nian ac­cu­sa­tions in an ef­fort to link its in­ter­nal prob­lems to re­gional is­sues in the hope of se­cur­ing fi­nan­cial aid.

UAVs that Iran con­structs are so lim­ited they would have had to be launched from inside Ye­men if the downed air­craft was in­deed Iran- ian. While Iran has sup­plied Le­banese Hezbol­lah with UAVs and could have of­fered them to the anti-gov­ern­ment al-Houthi group cur­rently en­gaged in guer­rilla war­fare in north­ern Ye­men, the drone was re­cov­ered in south­east Ye­men, at least 500 miles from the fo­cus of the re­volt.

San’a ac­cuses Iran of fund­ing an anti-gov­ern­ment in­sur­gency by a lo­cal Shi’ite group that has plagued the coun­try since early this year and led to the deaths of at least 150 gov­ern­ment and rebel com­bat­ants. Tribal lead­ers say that at least 30,000 civil­ians have fled their homes in what is the fourth vi­o­lent out­burst since 2004.

The latest fight­ing be­gan in Jan­uary af­ter the de­ci­sion by a group of 50 Ye­meni Jews in the coun­try’s north to seek refuge from pur­ported per­se­cu­tion by al-Houthis. The gov­ern­ment said the al-Houthis were ha­rass­ing the Jews, some­thing the for­mer do not deny, claim­ing that the Jews were sell­ing wine to Mus­lims.

Al-Houthi re­sent­ment has grown since 2004, when hard-line Shi’ite cleric Hus­sein al-Houthi was killed by gov­ern­ment troops. Ye­men ac­cuses the rebels of want­ing to in­stall Shi’ite re­li­gious rule, re­ceiv­ing aid from Iran and preach­ing vi­o­lence against the United States.

“Th­ese are base­less al­le­ga­tions used re­peat­edly since the [1979] Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion in Iran,” leader Yahya al-Houthi told the Al Ara­biya television news.

De­spite this, a spokesman for Ye­men’s rul­ing Gen­eral Peo­ple’s Congress party quoted Ira­nian se­cu­rity of­fi­cials as say­ing that some Ira­nian re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions sup­port the rebels, but with­out of­fi­cial back­ing from Tehran.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials would not com­ment on their coun­try’s in­volve­ment in Ye­men.

Amid ris­ing ten­sions be­tween San’a and Tehran, the Ira­nian Em­bassy in Ye­men’s cap­i­tal has been put un­der sur­veil­lance. Many vis­i­tors to the em­bassy have been in­ter­ro­gated by Ye­meni intelligence, es­pe­cially vis­i­tors to the cul­tural at­tache, who is sus­pected of be­ing an un­der­cover Ira­nian intelligence of­fi­cer.

Ten­sions peaked af­ter Iran’s am­bas­sador to San’a, Hos­sein Ka­malian, was sum­moned by Ye­meni For­eign Min­is­ter Abu Bakr alQurbi on March 20 for a meet­ing af­ter a fruit­less visit to Tehran by Mr. al-Qurbi.

In April, a se­cu­rity agree­ment was signed be­tween the two coun­tries, de­scribed as aiming to fur­ther “re­gional co­op­er­a­tion and co­or­di­na­tion in or­der to main­tain sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity in the re­gion.”

“The re­bel­lion will ex­pand [while] Iran is re­fus­ing to call it a re­bel­lion,” wrote Hafez al­Sheikh Saleh, a colum­nist for the news­pa­per Akhbar al-Khaleej (Gulf News) in Bahrain. “As for the Ira­ni­ans, it is their na­ture to say some­thing and not do it or do the op­po­site of what they say. The way they deal with the Arabs is on the ba­sis that they are a na­tion of id­iots who are eas­ily fooled.”

Emo­tive rhetoric has in­creas­ingly coursed through the nor­mally staid state-con­trolled Arab press as the re­gional con­fronta­tion be­tween the con­ser­va­tive Sunni states and Shi’ite Iran mounts.

Pro-Saudi press such as the Elaph news site con­sis­tently run sto­ries in­tended to paint Tehran in a neg­a­tive light. On Feb. 19, it quoted Syr­ian re­searcher Muham­mad Said Sha­lah as say­ing that pro-Ira­nian “busi­ness­men are us­ing Ira­nian money and trans­fer­ring funds to fi­nance many Shia lead­ers through­out the Is­lamic world.”

“The sup­port given to al-Houthi is only a drop in the ocean of the Ira­nian in­fil­tra­tion of the Arab re­gion from the Gulf to the ocean,” the Elaph news site as­serted.

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