Eighteen miles. That’s the width of the Bab el-Mandab passageway, the narrow stretch of ocean separating Djibouti from Yemen that connects the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. In strategic terms, this passage is crucial. Control the Bab el-Mandab passage and you control the eastern half of one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.
That is exactly what Iran is looking to do. Few recognize it—but it’s happening under our noses. All you have to do is look at Yemen.
Remember Yemen? The Arab Spring rolled into the country in February 2011. Finally, after 12 months of massive protests, multiple defections of key military and political officials, and a failed effort to forge a power-sharing arrangement with his opponents, President Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned in February of this year. He was replaced by his vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi.
Yemenis aren’t satisfied. Regular anti-government protests continue, government officials are still defecting, political stability and unity remain elusive, and the economy is still in horrible shape.
Worse still, anti-government forces—most notably Islamist terrorist organizations—are wreaking havoc, expanding their reach and slowly wearing the government down. Within five days in August, for example, terrorists conducted three separate attacks in Yemen. One was a well-planned assault on Yemen’s intelligence headquarters that killed 20 soldiers and security personnel. In another, alleged al Qaeda terrorists bombed a key pipeline transporting natural gas; Yemen’s Ministry of Oil says attacks on energy infrastructure are costing Yemen $15 million per day. The intensity of these attacks seems to be growing.
Meanwhile, a food crisis is brewing, brought on by a rapid rise in food prices and food shortages. In July, the World Food Program reported that half of Yemen’s population could be malnourished. Nothing provokes dissatisfaction and anger like an empty gut, and some now fear that economic stress will harden the public’s anger at the fledgling government.
Yemen’s weakness and vulnerability as a nation makes for a bleak scenario—and in Iran’s eyes, a perfect opportunity.
“In the past several months, Iran appears to have increased its political outreach and arms shipments to rebels and other political figures in Yemen,” the New York Times reported March 15. Tehran is reportedly supplying moral, ideological and military support to Islamist terrorists, including al Qaeda. It is known to be providing them AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as material for making explosive devices.
Tehran is especially invested in northern Yemen with a Shiite organization called al-Houthi. The Houthis’ goal is to not only destabilize Yemen’s government, but also to undermine Saudi Arabia’s Sunni government. Iran is Saudi Arabia’s enemy and has stepped forward as the Houthis’ primary ideological, financial and military ally. Despite their religious differences, the Houthi and al Qaeda are united, and even reportedly are working together to undermine Yemen’s government. Both are powerful ideological allies of Tehran.
Iran’s Fars News Agency, citing a spokesman for Yemen’s Revolutionary Forces, reported that “the Yemeni people are deeply interested to establish stronger and very intimate relations with Iran” (August 21). According to Fars, the spokesman “reiterated that once the Yemeni people take back power from the Saudi-U.S. pivot, Tehran and Sanaa [Yemen’s capital] would certainly develop their ties” (emphasis added).
What does Iran expect to gain by establishing a presence in Yemen? Look at a map of the Middle East. Basically, Iran wants Yemen for the same reason it wants Ethiopia, Eritrea and Egypt: to control the Red Sea!
Yemen abuts both the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. It sits on the north side of the Bab el-Mandab passageway. Each of the thousands of ships that traverse this passage each year would travel within easy range of Islamist missiles stationed in Yemen. Consider the global ramifications: More than 5 percent of global oil supplies, some 2 to 3 million barrels per day, pass through the Suez and the Red Sea. Roughly 20,000 ships—an average of 55 per day—pass through the Suez Canal and Red Sea each year. About 15 percent of global maritime trade travels through the Red Sea. Talk about power and leverage.
Few see it, but ultimately, this is Iran’s grand strategy for endorsing and promoting the Islamification of Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and to a lesser extent, Yemen and Djibouti.
Think about the leverage Iran is gaining. It already effectively controls the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Now, in the 18 months since the Arab Spring touched off the rise of Islamist forces throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Tehran has made enormous strides in gaining influence over the Gulf of Aden, the Bab el-Mandab passageway, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. If Egypt takes control of the Sinai, which appears imminent, Iran will also gain a foothold in the Gulf of Aqaba.
It’s startling, when you think about it, the way Iran is steadily—but quietly, with few noticing—locking down the Red Sea! ▪