Iranian ships loaded with weapons keep turning up in the darnedest places. The latest report is that Yemeni authorities on Monday seized an Iranian ship in their waters trying to deliver anti-armor rounds to Yemen’s Shia Zaidi rebels. Especially noteworthy is that the ship was seized on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Yemenis say the ship is not the first to pull into the Eritrean port of Asmara and then cross the Red Sea to deliver weapons to the Zaidi insurgents. The Yemeni press, in fact, reports that Iran is training Zaidi rebels in Eritrea. Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh insisted earlier this year that the Zaidi (or al-Houthi) rebels are being trained by Hezbollah.
Iran’s 2008 basing agreement with Eritrea has received minimal attention in the West, in part because there is little new information on any developments related to it. Radio France International reported in May that Iranian warships and a submarine had been observed in Asmara along with a unit of Iran’s Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard’s paramilitary force. If a submarine were actually present, it would have been one of Iran’s mini-submarines, small one- or two-man submersibles with a very restricted range of operations. Iran has long cultivated a mini-submarine threat to shipping in restricted waters. As for the warships, Iran is using Asmara for the replenishment of its antipiracy patrol ships.
Israel, of course, has expressed concern over this Iranian Red Sea presence, and analysts have connected it with the overland arms route for Hamas, interdicted in a dramatic air raid over Sudan in February. Somalia watchers continue to warn that Iranian arms are flowing to al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgency in southern Somalia, through Eritrea. Riyadh is now increasingly concerned about Iran’s support to the Yemeni rebels, whose stronghold in western Yemen is on the poorly guarded border with Saudi Arabia. The rebels claimed last week that they came under attack from Saudi forces when operating near the border, a credible claim given the level of Saudi disquiet.
The evidence is relentless: arming regional insurgents and terrorists is what Iran commits its limited resources to. Arranging forward logistics for the effort in a strategically positioned port is a measure of that commitment. The same commitment is to be expected to threats like holding global shipping at risk and deploying ballistic missiles to the Red Sea coast. We are already seeing the regional initiatives Iran will feel even freer to mount once it has nuclear weapons. It is a fatal error to suppose that we will feel just as free, under those conditions, to oppose them.