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Israel is increasingly looking at Yemen with concern

Attacks on Aramco and deepening Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in the Arabian Peninsula has the Israelis wondering whether they too may soon become a target
Houthi military spokesman Brigadier-General Yahya Saree displaying satellite images of before (R) and after September's attack on Saudi Aramco's oil field (AFP)
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Tel Aviv, Israel

Earlier this month, the United States revealed that its intelligence services had concluded the attack three months ago on Saudi oil sites was the work of Iran.

Reuters reported that that debris recovered indicates the strike came from the north of one of the locations attacked – refuting the Yemeni Houthi movement’s claims it was responsible. 

Iran, which backs the Houthis, denied any involvement. Yet Yemen is south of Saudi Arabia, making Houthi responsibility impossible if the US intelligence assessment is indeed correct.

Israeli officials told Middle East Eye that they tend to accept the US findings, but also emphasised that like many other previous attacks and clashes, it was most probably a joint venture involving Houthis, Iran’s intelligence ministry and the Quds force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The Quds force’s leader is the notorious Major-General Qassem Soleimani. Officially he serves under IRGC commander Major-General Hossein Salami, a man known for his fiery and aggressive speeches targeting the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities came from the north, not Yemen, US says
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But in reality Soleimani, a close confidant and adviser of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with whom he has developed fatherly relations, is considered as a much more important commander, certainly with a much better public image.

The interesting recent developments surrounding Iran and Yemen do not stop at the US assessment, however.

Western intelligence sources cited by the French newsletter Intelligence Online have identified the commander of the Iranian Quds force in Yemen. According to the sources, General Reza Shahi, a native of the Iranian city of Shiraz, commands a Revolutionary Guards unit in Yemen of about 400 fighters. It’s reinforced by experts from Hezbollah sent from Lebanon.

Khamenei and his military commanders, including Salami, Soleimani and Shahi, have been trying to conceal and hide Iranian involvement in Yemen.

However US, Israeli and Saudi intelligence services have managed to gather sufficient evidence to prove the opposite. 

According to Intelligence Online’s sources, Shahi and some of his subordinates were deeply involved in the missile and drone attacks on the Aramco oil facilities.

The extended Quds-Hezbollah presence in Yemen is a source of deep concern for Israeli intelligence and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. In recent months Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Iran is deploying missiles in Yemen that threaten not only Saudi Arabia but also Israel.

Historic interest

Because of its special geostrategic location - overlooking water lanes of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and its proximity to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa - Israel has for decades showed an interest in Yemen.

In the 1960s Mossad was asked by the British MI6 intelligence service and former SAS commander David Sterling to help the royal forces in the Yemen civil war against the Nasserite republicans. In response, the Israeli air force organised air drops of weapons to Imam Badr’s royalist military, which eventually lost the war.

After the 1967 Middle East war, Palestinian organisations such as a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine splinter group, led by Wadia Haddad, established training camps and operational bases in Yemen.

Israeli commandos’ famous Entebbe operation in 1976 took place after Haddad’s Palestinian and German militants hijacked an Air France passenger airliner. In 1979, Haddad died in an East German hospital after most probably being poisoned by Mossad operatives.

Meanwhile, Israeli navy ships sailed in the waters around Yemen to guard tankers shipping Iranian oil to Israel. Though that supply ended in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution, the Israeli navy continues to patrol the same waters, through which Israel imports oil and goods from India and the Far East.

As Iranian and Saudi rivalry has increased over the past decade, so too has Israeli interest in Yemen.

The schism between Riyadh and Tehran is helping to bring the Israeli-Saudi alliance ever closer, and Iranian manoeuvres in Yemen are an additional dimension to this.

Netanyahu worried

Around 2,000km separate Israel and Yemen, but the threat of Houthi missiles is nonetheless a recurring theme.

Netanyahu’s concerns have been met by Houthi threats. General Mohammed al-Atifi, the Houthi administration’s defence minister, said three weeks ago that his forces had identified a range of Israeli military targets that they are able to attack.

'We will not hesitate even a minute to destroy these targets if the leadership takes the decision to do so'

- Mohammed al-Atifi, Houthi defence minister

“We will not hesitate even a minute to destroy these targets if the leadership takes the decision to do so,” he said in an interview with the Houthi-linked Al-Masirah newspaper. Atifi accused Israel of participating in the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Houthis.

Though there’s little evidence the Houthis possess the ability to launch a strike from hundreds of kilometres away, Israel sees Yemen as another theatre for Tehran’s attempts for regional hegemony.

Israel finds itself surrounded by Iranian and pro-Iranian militias and huge arsenals in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Though the civilian protests and street demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq worry Iran, there are no signs that its military determination and imperial ambitions have weakened.

Iran’s leadership remains unified in the belief that the Islamic Republic must be sustained, and the supreme leader continues his efforts to consolidate a hardline future for Iran.