Citing Iran to Justify Yemen Slaughter

The indiscriminate and U.S.-backed Saudi bombing campaign over a largely defenseless Yemen has reportedly killed hundreds of civilians and devastated historic cities. To justify the slaughter, the mainstream U.S. media has trumpeted dubious allegations about Iranian influence, notes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

As the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi targets in Yemen continues, notwithstanding a temporary pause, the corporate media narrative about the conflict in Yemen is organized decisively around the idea that it is a proxy war between Iran on one side and the Saudis and United States on the other.

USA Today responded like Pavlov’s dog this week to a leak by Pentagon officials that it was sending the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to the waters off Yemen, supposedly to intercept Iranian vessels carrying weapons to the Houthis. It turned out that the warship was being sent primarily to symbolize U.S. support for the Saudis, and the Pentagon made no mention of Iranian arms when it announced the move.

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But the story of the U.S. Navy intercepting Iranian arms was irresistible, because it fit so neatly into the larger theme of Iran arming and training the Houthis as its proxy military force in Yemen. News stories on Yemen in recent months have increasingly incorporated a sentence or even a paragraph invoking the accusation that Iran has been arming the Houthis and using them to gain power in the Gulf.

The State Department’s principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Gerald Feierstein nourished that narrative in Congressional testimony last week depicting Iran as having provided “financial support, weapons, training and intelligence” to the Houthis. Feierstein acknowledged that the Houthi movement is “not controlled directly by Iran,” but claimed a “significant growth in Iranian engagement” with the Houthis in the past year.

Like most popular myths the dominant narrative of the Houthi movement as an Iranian proxy in Yemen is based on a kernel of truth: the Houthis share the Iranians’ dim views of American intentions in the Middle East and have sought to take advantage of the Hezbollah model to enhance their political-military effectiveness.

But the assumption that the Houthis have been looking to Iran to train their troops or supply their need for weapons ignores the most basic facts of their ascendance. The Houthis built up their military forces from virtually nothing to as many 100,000 troops today through a series of six wars with Yemeni government troops.

In the process they have not only become much better trained, but have acquired a vast pool of arms from Yemen’s black market. A United Nations Experts’ report earlier this year cites estimates that Yemen is awash with 40 to 60 million weapons. The Houthis were also getting a continuing stream of modern arms directly from corrupt Yemeni military commanders from 2004 through 2010.

And in their eagerness to conform to the general theme of an Iran vs. U.S.-Saudi proxy war in Yemen, the media’s treatment of alleged Iranian arms to the Houthis has ignored the fact that the Houthis had forged an alliance by early 2014 with a far larger source of arms: former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was that alliance that propelled the Houthis into power last September, not their ties with Iran.

After Saleh was forced to step down as president in 2012, the government supposedly reorganized the military and Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali Saleh was ousted as commander of the Republican Guard. But in fact Saleh continued to control the military through his allies in most of the command positions. When the Houthis advanced on Sanaa last September, it was all carefully choreographed by Saleh. The Houthis were able to take one Yemeni military facility after another without a fight and enter the capital easily.

A Gift from America

In the process, the Houthis acquired a new bonanza of weapons that had been provided by the United States over the previous eight years. According to Pentagon documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act by Joseph Trevithick, the Defense Department had delivered about $500 million in military hardware to the Yemeni military from 2006 on.

The gusher of new U.S. arms included Russian-made helicopters, more than 100 Humvees with the latest armor packages, 100s of pickup trucks, rocket propelled grenades, advanced radios, night vision goggles and millions of rounds of ammunition.

A significant part of that weaponry and equipment was scooped up by Houthi fighters on their way into Sanaa and has been visible in the months since then. When the Houthis advanced into Aden on April 1, residents reported seeing four tanks and three armored vehicles as well as Rocket propelled grenades. On March 29, after the Saudi bombing campaign had begun, the Houthis were reported to have had control of the Yemeni Air Force’s 16 fighter planes, of which 11 had been destroyed by the bombing.

In light of the reality that the Houthis are already flush with American arms that may be worth as much as hundreds of millions of dollars, the flurry of media excitement over the U.S. Navy sending another warship to intercept an Iranian flotilla of arms is an odd bit of burlesque that ought to be in an embarrassment.

The one concrete allegation that has been invoked by media stories in recent months is the case of a ship called Jihan 1, said to have been laden with Iranian arms, that was intercepted in early 2013. A Reuters story last December cited a list of all the items on board provided by a “senior Yemeni security official,” which included Katyusha rifles, RPGs-7s, tons of RDX explosives and surface-to-air missiles.

But the Hadi government never provided any evidence that the ship was sent by Iran or was intended for the Houthis. And most of the items mentioned were not even Iranian-manufactured weapons. The one odd exception was a reference to “Iranian-made night vision goggles.” That fact suggests that the ship was intended to provide arms to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which carries out large numbers of terrorist bombings and would have needed the large supplies of RDX.

The Houthis, on the other hand, are not known to have used that explosive. The UN expert panel formed to support the UN Security Council sanctions against Houthi commanders and Saleh reported that it had been “unable to independently confirm the allegation” about the Jihan 1.

The Reuters story, published months after the Houthis had acquired a large portion of the Yemeni army’s American arms, quoted a second Yemeni security official as still claiming that Iranian weapons “are still coming in by sea and there’s money coming in through transfers.”

Reuters further claimed that a “senior Iranian official,” contradicting official Iranian denials, had told the news agency that “the pace of money and arms getting to the Houthis had increased since their seizure of Sanaa.” The official allegedly said there were hundreds of IRGC personnel training the Houthis and six Iranian military advisers in Yemen. That part of the story appears suspicious to say the least.

The politically convenient story line that the Houthis are proxies of Iran is hardly new. As a US diplomatic cable from Sanaa in 2009 reveals, the Yemeni government had waged a continuing campaign for years during its wars with the Houthis to persuade the United States that Iran and Hezbollah were arming and training the Houthis, but had never produced any real evidence to support the claim.

Ties between the Houthis and Iran undoubtedly exist, driven by a common distrust of American and Saudi roles in Yemen and the Houthis’ need for an ideology that would enhance their power. But the slack-jawed media approach to the story – starting with its refusal to put the allegations of continuing Iran arms smuggling to the Houthis in the context of the Houthis bonanza of U.S. arms – has produced the usual fog of misinformation and confusion.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.[This story originally appeared at Middle East Eye.]

8 comments for “Citing Iran to Justify Yemen Slaughter

  1. rosemerry
    April 25, 2015 at 05:55

    The USA must in every altercation interfere and support the wrong side!!
    “The State Department’s principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Gerald Feierstein “, of course, cannot be criticized, for that would be antisemitic. How many people with knowledge and understanding, even sympathy for Iran, any Muslims or any Arabs, populate the heights of the US State Department? Is any effort made to check the validity of claims made against “the enemy”?

  2. Gina
    April 24, 2015 at 18:29

    I always understood the invasion of Yemen, an ally of Iran, as a means to weaken Iran. Iran is a country too big to wage war on.

    • Peter Loeb
      April 25, 2015 at 06:42

      WHAT IF..???

      As I tried to make clear in my comment to Robert Parry’s article in this issue of
      Consortiumnews (my effort is “US AND THEM”), It would not make any significant
      difference if Iran DID send troops, weapons etc. to the Houthis (read its allies).
      The US does precisely this —send weapons, troops to support US allies—–all
      the time. In fact the international weapons market is an integral part of of the
      US economy as well as the economies of the nations it controls or seeks to
      control. Should this weapons market disappear, should the hundreds of US
      bases on foreign soil around the globe, suddenly disappear (an inconceivable
      idea from many points of view not the least domestic political and diplomatic
      ones) the world would be a different place. The funds would unfortunately
      NOT go into domestic needs in the US where they are so much needed. Americans
      historically believe that it is wrong to strive for equality for heroic to fund
      killing. (If the US had lost the “War of 1812” as it is called in the US, our
      history may have been different. Even though Muslims were not involved in
      that war directly or indirectly.

      In short, if the US reserves for itself the inherent right to send military aid where
      it wishes to its allies, that very same “right” should apply to any other nation.

      Of course, this opposes international law, the UN etc. But the US never seems
      to bother about following international law (Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel etc.) when
      their interests and those of their clients are at issue.

      PS. I doubt Gareth Porter and I would get along well. I always require others over
      whom I am obviously superior in every way! Mr. Porter always injures my self-esteem.
      As always, thanks for your article Mr. Porter.DS

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. April 23, 2015 at 22:35

    Thank you for outlining the regular propaganda lie about the Houthis being an Iranian proxy.

    However, while doing this, you gave credence to another odd propaganda lie, here:

    “When the Houthis advanced into Aden on April 1, residents reported seeing four tanks and three armored vehicles as well as Rocket propelled grenades.”

    The truth is that there are no Houthis in Aden or anywhere in Southern Yemen. The fighting in Aden is between the Yemeni army and militias of the separatist southern movement. In most other parts of Yemen there are no Houthis fighting neither. What is described as Houthis is in fact the Yemeni army. Even Hadi’s foreign minister said this.

    The Yemeni army is united and fighting against what is commonly described as “popular committes” loyal to Hadi, which in fact are mixtures of tribal, brotherhood, separatist and Al Qaeda militants. And the Saudi coalition is hardly anytime bombing Houthis, but it is bombing the Yemeni army – if not directly bombing civilians.

    So, this war in Yemen is not against the Houthis. The reality is that this is a Saudi-led war against the Yemeni army.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 23, 2015 at 23:27

      The truth is that there are no Houthis in Aden or anywhere in Southern Yemen.

      You may be right about this, but I’d ask how you’re so certain you’re right. Here in the middle of the US of A I’ve no way of learning anything about Yemen except by reading news accounts and all the blogs I can. Maybe they’re all parroting the same line, but yours is the first account I’ve seen to claim that the Houthis are sitting tight in the north.

      So what’s your source?

      • April 24, 2015 at 19:07

        I have followed Yemen quite closely, and people in the country seem to say all the same thing in this regard, when asked. And, then, even “President” Hadi’s “foreign minister” publicly admitted what everybody in the country knew for long, directly to Reuters. Take this as a quotable source:

        Reuters, 1/4/2015: Yemen’s problem is ex-president not Houthis – foreign minister

        Quotes from this Reuters news item:

        Yemen’s main problem is not the Houthi fighters who have taken control of much of the country but their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose forces are better trained and armed, the country’s foreign minister said. …

        “The main thing now is if Ali Abdullah Saleh forces stop fighting with them, I think they (the Houthis) will start to retreat. Our main problem now is not the Houthis. They are few, they have only light weapons,” Abdulla said. …

        Abdulla said the fighting in Aden and some other cities was not the result of Houthi advances, but of local garrisons loyal to Saleh, including the Republican Guard, shelling troops and residential areas loyal to the government. …

        Although the only forces in Aden still loyal to the Saudi-backed Hadi are from local militias, some parts of the army continue to back him elsewhere including the eastern province of Hadramawt and near Marib, he said.


        Interestingly, though there is this first class source – the “foreign minister” cited by Reuters – western media failed to adopt their narrative that this war is all about Houthis – though this is demonstrably false. Followers of Abdul Malek Houthi are very strong, dominating, in the north, they have a good presence in Sanaa, but they cannot – and will not – operate at all in the south, and spokespeople for Ansarallah they said this publicly.

        The Aden battle is all about the Yemeni army versus Southern movement, mostly local units. However, the southern movement is not united in fighting the army. Followers of southern Yemen ex-president and former southern movement leader Ali Salim al-Beidh in Aden seem to work well together with Houthis in the north. Two or three days ago, there was a pic on twitter with the house of Ali Salim al-Beidh in Aden badly damaged by a Saudi airstrike.

      • Zachary Smith
        April 25, 2015 at 10:45

        Thank you for the interesting link. It backs up your assertion that the situation is complex and fluid, but definitely contradicts your claim that the Houthis aren’t in the south.

        Abdulla was speaking in an interview in the Saudi capital Riyadh, where he and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have settled after leaving Aden last week when Aden, the last Yemeni city under Hadi’s control, came under Houthi attack.

        Aden is about as far south as you can get in Yemen.

        Who is killing who in Yemen, and why – that’s not easy information to uncover given the nature of the Corporate Media in the US and non-parrot news stories are always useful.

        Mr. Loeb’s remarks about the US hypocrisy were spot-on as well.

    • Gregory Kruse
      April 24, 2015 at 18:45

      Your premise that there are no Houthi’s in south Yemen strains credulity. Your conclusion that the Saudi’s are not trying to suppress the Houthi rebellion has no credibility at all.

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