America’s Silent Partnership With Iran And The Contest For Middle Eastern Order: Part Three

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 3, 2014


This is the third of a four-part series looking at the United States’ increasingly-evident de facto alliance with Iran in the region. This first part looked at the way this policy has developed since President Obama took office and how it has been applied in Iraq. The second part looked at the policy’s application in Syria; this part will look at its application in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Yemen; and part four will be a conclusion.

Though the United States was instrumental in driving Assad out of Lebanon in February 2005, ceding Lebanon back to Assad’s and Hizballah’s (which is to say Iran’s) domination was an early pre-emptive quid pro quo from the Obama administration in its “Syria track” on Israel-Palestine. By December 2009, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was in Syria pleading for terms with a tyrant he had publicly said murdered his father.

While it was true that Assad withdrew his military forces but maintained his intelligence apparatus, the real backbone of Syria’s power over Lebanon, the overt control exerted by the Assad-Iran-Hizballah axis did not come until early 2011, with a takeover when Hariri was in Washington. Hizballah had consolidated control over large chunks of Beirut in May 2008, and now had virtually untrammelled power.

Far from countering the Hizballah’s domination of Lebanon, the United States has moved to ratify it. The U.S. has passed intelligence on Salafi jihadists planning attacks on the Hizballah to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), whose military intelligence unit is controlled by the Hizballah (Iran), and now Iran is stepping up its campaign to openly draw Lebanon into its axis in order to cement American support for Iran’s regional ambitions. The British have also been involved in working with the Hizballah against the Islamic State.

While Beirut has stayed officially neutral in the Syrian war, if Iran can get the LAF to engage in a fight with the insurgents in Syria, and formally work with the Assad tyranny on counter-terrorism matters, it would—and is intended to—legitimise Assad as a Western counter-terrorism partner, bringing him into the anti-I.S. Coalition in all-but name. It would also underwrite Iran’s control of Lebanon. The LAF could not sustain a fight with the Islamic State and its allies, even on Lebanese territory in places like Arsal. The LAF would have to be assisted by the Hizballah—as the Hizballah’s allies keep saying—which would mean Lebanon took on the model of Iraq and Syria, with the official armed forces laced with, and controlled by, Iran’s proxy militias and intelligence agents.

As ever, Lebanon is a pawn of outsiders. Unfortunately, only one side is taking part in this contest. The Obama administration sees Lebanon, like Iraq, as a theatre where the U.S. interest is identical with Iran’s, thus it is not zero-sum contest. Unfortunately Iran does not see it this way.


Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and one the poorest countries in the world. It has traditionally been in Saudi Arabia’s orbit—the Saudis’ back-yard, if truth be told. The Arabian Revolts came to Yemen in January 2011. Yemen’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was nearly shelled out of office in June 2011. While recovering, Saleh gave the reigns to Gen. Abd al-Rabb Mansour al-Hadi, before returning to power in late September. After several false starts, a Gulf-brokered deal finally had Saleh call it quits officially in February 2012, ceding power to an interim government led by Hadi.

Saleh had been a “cynical acrobat,” as Fouad Ajami once described him. Saleh could tell the Americans that they could continue their drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda’s most active and threatening branch, while at the same time Saleh was ever-ready to use the jihadists to press his case to the West and his regime played a double-game. Saleh could hint at ceasing co-operation against the jihadists if his aid demands were not met, and high-level prisoners seemed to go missing with alarming regularity just to remind everyone of the dangers. And Saleh of course held out the Arab dictators’ trump card: Après moi, le déluge.

During Saleh’s rulership there had been no peace in Yemen. AQAP led an insurgency in the south of the country. Further east in the south is the Hirak movement, a tribally-based secessionist movement, heavily tinged with Salafism and a desire for control of its own area where most of Yemen’s oil is located. And then in the north-west, along the Saudi border, is an insurgency of the Zaydi (Fiver) Shi’ites, who make up about a third of the population. The Zaydis are led by a group called Ansar Allah, almost universally known as the Houthis after their spiritual and military leaders, first Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi and now Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

Until 1962, the area that would become North Yemen until unification in 1990—South Yemen being a Soviet-allied Communist State—was an absolutist theocratic monarchy controlled by a Zaydi Imam. The Zaydis are often accused of wanting to restore this lost dominion, which is not fondly remembered by most Yemenis, and the spread of Saudi Wahhabism has hardened the sectarian faultlines against the Zaydis even further.

That said, as ever in the Middle East, this does not cut neatly. As Farea al-Muslimi explained recently, the Saudis supported the Zaydi monarchy’s attempted restoration in North Yemen between 1962 and 1970 against republican forces backed by Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser—who became one of only three men since the Second World War to use poison gas—and the Saudis then supported  separatist rebellion in southern Yemen in 1994 despite it being led by the remnants of the old Communist regime, which had been the Saudis’ bitterest foe. The Saudis do actually share some common enemies with the Zaydis, namely the Muslim Brothers, who are strong among the tribes, and al-Qaeda.

After a somewhat less-than-vivacious Election, Hadi was officially sworn in as president and a “National Dialogue Conference” (NDC) was inaugurated, under Saudi auspices, to try to arrive at a durable political compact. Concluding in January 2014, the NDC concluded with a roadmap that would leave Hadi in place for another year to oversee reforms to the constitution, including the granting of wider autonomy to Yemen’s communities, the Hiraks and Zaydis particularly, to defuse the secessionist insurrections, and after that competitive elections would be held. The NDC document was the “beginning of the road to build a new Yemen,” Hadi said. The U.N.’s special envoy for Yemen, Jamal Benomar, added that this plan held out the promise to pacify a country long mired in civil war and to break from the past by “paving the way for democratic governance founded on the rule of law, human rights, and equal citizenship”.

While scepticism about the NDC is understandable, it had been an inclusive process that gained the assent of all of Yemen’s major communities and factions. The process was derailed when the Houthis, supported by Iran, overran Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, on September 21, 2014. The U.N. put in place a Peace and National Partnership Agreement on the day Sana’a fell, a fig leaf agreement that supposedly put in place a power-sharing government, but despite the best efforts of Iran’s apologists to pretend otherwise, the Houthis had taken power in a coup d’état. This was formalised on January 22, 2015, when President Hadi was forced to resign. What this means on the ground is open to question. Yemen’s politics are profoundly local; holding Sana’a influences basically only Sana’a. (One can see this in the vice versa case: if holding Sana’a was key to controlling Yemen, the fallen government should have had more influence in the rest of the country than it did—enough to hold off an insurgency that drove it from its capital, anyway.) But it is profoundly important symbolically, and does have real strategic implications.

In mid-October, the Saudi Foreign Minister said Iran should get its “occupying forces” out of Syria, and do the same in Iraq and Yemen if Tehran “wants to be part of the solution”. Ali Khedery, an American who served continuously in Iraq from 2003 to 2009 and then at CENTCOM until 2010, minced no words in the aftermath of Sana’a’s fall in September. “[Qassem] Suleimani is the leader of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” Khedery said, and Suleimani answered only to “his boss”: Ali Khamenei. And Khamenei, through proxies, was equally clear: “Three Arab capitals (Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad) have already fallen into Iran’s hand,” and Sana’a was the fourth.

There is much debate about the extent of the influence of Iran’s Pasdaran over the Houthis because Iran’s covert action has remained covert, but the impression in the region, and likely the truth, is that Iran’s influence is significant. Iran’s own officials, as well as Yemenis, have testified to the surge of Iranian support—training, money, weapons—that flowed to the Houthis before they executed the coup in Sana’a, which was overseen by at least a dozen “advisors” from the Revolutionary Guards inside Yemen. [UPDATE: Indeed, after the Houthis captured the Yemeni capital, they sacked the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. intelligence files not evacuated during the hasty withdrawal were “handed directly to Iranian advisers”.] As far back as 2010 evidence existed to suggest that Iran was supplying weapons and, through the Hizballah cut-out, training to the Houthis. (Interestingly, evidence existed to show that Assad was “facilitating movement of [Sunni] jihadists to Yemen,” just as he had to Iraq, and these jihadists had then tried to blow up a plane over Detroit. But even in early 2010, the U.S. was holding off direct condemnation so as “not to undermine talks over Tehran’s nuclear program.”)

The Houthis made as their first order of business in Sana’a the release of suspected Hizballah fighters. Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian Foreign Minister and wanted criminal for the massacre of Jews in Argentina, said he hoped the Houthis would serve the same role in Yemen as the Hizballah serves in Lebanon. A representative of Khamenei said the Houthis already were “a similar copy to Lebanon’s Hizballah,” “directly support[ed]” by Iran, and added that the Houthis were taking “action against the enemies of Islam.” Ali Reza Zakani, the Khamenei mouthpiece mentioned above, said that the Houthi conquest “will extend … into Saudi territories“. Not just the Saudi-linked press but the Iranian-linked press have noted the Hizballah connection with the Houthis, as have U.S. sanctions designations. “By 1992,” says Matthew Levitt, in his book on the Hizballah’s global reach as part of Iran’s terrorist network, the Hizballah was extending “support to … ‘radical elements’ in … Yemen”. Levitt has added that the Quds Force and the Hizballah have transferred weapons and training to the Houthis. Other open-source material agrees with this, and the Houthis’ own representatives have said Iran supplies “logistics, intelligence and cash,” amounting to tens of millions of dollars. The Hizballah does not usually do the work of occupying territory. Phillip Smyth, an expert on Iran’s proxies, has described the Hizballah’s strategy in Syria as the “sharp tip of [the] spear,” and this is the role the Hizballah appears to be playing in Yemen, though obviously on nothing like the scale of Syria where the Hizballah is deployed in conventional formations.

While the Houthis have avoided openly swearing allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader, that Yemen is now in Iran’s sphere of influence could not be clearer—and there has been exactly no pushback from the United States. One thing the U.S. could immediately do is remove the funding it gives to the Yemeni government under the laws that cut funds to States that experience coups. The U.S. has not done this, and seems unlikely to. To the contrary, senior U.S. intelligence officials are musing on the “relationship” the U.S. maintains with the Houthis—who are anti-al-Qaeda, after all—and the process of on-the-ground alignment with Iran’s tributaries, as seen in Iraq and Syria, has already begun:

In October, an offensive by the Houthis followed by U.S. airstrikes in November routed AQAP from Rada, a city overrun by AQAP in southern Bayda province in 2012.”

The U.S. “began sharing intelligence [with the Houthis] on AQAP positions in November, using intermediaries,” namely “Yemeni counterterrorism officials,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “One Houthi commander said the U.S. provided logistical aid … and exchanged intelligence on AQAP to support the Houthis’ operations against [AQAP] and pinpoint drone strikes.” While contact with Houthi commanders remains “informal,” according to U.S. officials, the U.S. has also gone to pains “not to end up … inadvertently firing on Houthi fighters” with drones and the Houthis have asked that drones not be flown over areas they control. Indications are that these demands are being acceded to. “The Obama administration increasingly has sought to describe the Houthis as a potential partner,” the Journal notes, a “shift [that] could place it on the same side as Iran in the Yemen conflict.” As in the Fertile Crescent, aligning with Iran’s proxies to combat Salafi jihadists will not lead to stability in Yemen. The Houthi conquest is already pushing Sunnis into al-Qaeda’s camp, a process that can only accelerate if the U.S. lends its support to the Houthis.

There are real strategic fears from Yemen. If the Houthis captured Bab-el-Mandeb it would have the ability to impede one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. As rancid an ally as the Saudis are, they still are an ally, and the Houthis give Iran a reach into their world and an ability to organise terrorist attacks on Saudi soil. As AQAP have shown, global terrorist attacks can be organised from Yemen, and Iran has an unrivalled record in global terrorism. And internal to Yemen, the Houthis’ advance does nothing but strengthen the most sectarian forces, including al-Qaeda, and impede any kind of stability. The symbolism of Yemen, however, is even more significant.

Press leaks in early November said that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait were looking to form a “military pact“. This would have rolling back the Islamic State and the Salafi jihadists in Libya as its most immediate goals, but Iran was of course a major part of their calculations, and the only reason they were considering a pact outside Pax Americana was because of “skepticism among the countries that Washington is prepared to pursue militants beyond the anti-Islamic State group operation”. There was no doubt the American non-reaction to the fall of Sana’a was key to the timing. America, by the Arab States’ lights, had watched a fourth Arab capital fall to Iran, and done nothing. America’s allies, in short, took further steps toward becoming what Bret Stephens calls foreign policy “freelancers” because of their lack of faith in America to provide security.


On September 21 in Kabul, a unity government was formed with Ashraf Ghani as President and Abdullah Abdullah as effective Prime Minister. Ghani, a Pashtun from Logar Province, led the Finance Ministry in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban theocracy and is by all accounts a competent, relatively uncorrupt, and rather pro-Western academic and reformist figure. Abdullah is reportedly of Tajik background but his father was a Pashtun. Abdullah was a close friend of Ahmed Shah Massoud and his conservative credentials are rather better than Ghani’s, which means he could—as he sometimes signals he wants to—enact a more progressive agenda with less resistance. Abdullah, however, is backed by Iran.

The deal came about under American pressure, after “Abdullah, who had won the first round, appeared to have lost the second round, his supporters began rattling sabers, threatening to secede or to take the presidential palace by force. These threats rattled the Obama administration, and Kerry rushed to Kabul to negotiate a deal between the two candidates.” But this involved abandoning the first principle of democratic governance, namely that the composition of the government is determined by Election. In this case, the Election had returned an American win—by more than ten percentage points—and an Iranian loss, but the U.S. instead insisted on sharing victory. Once again, the Obama administration chose to accommodate Iran, where previous U.S. Presidents have seen it as their job to counter Iranian influence.

Iran has gotten rather a pass for its bad behaviour in Afghanistan. It is true that the Taliban represented a Saudi victory in the great Iran-Saudi contest to support the anti-Soviet jihad, though Iran did still have assets in Afghanistan, notably Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of Hizb-i-Islami, which did so much to destroy Kabul in the 1992-96 civil war that followed the toppling of the Communist government leftover by the Soviets. It’s also true that Iran nearly invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban in 1998 after its diplomats were murdered at Mazar-i-Sharif. (Though the Taliban “admitted” doing this, the killers were actually agents of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which Iran has been drawing closer to in recent years.) Finally, a long-standing talking-point of the pro-détente crowd, notably recently Ambassador Ryan Crocker, has been the “help” Iran gave to NATO after 9/11 in finally finishing with the Taliban-Qaeda regime. Some Iran apologists have claimed that Iran turned over 300 copies of passports of al-Qaeda members Iran had deported to the United Nations and/or turned over 200 al-Qaeda fighters to the Afghan government. Even if this is true, and there are serious doubts, no senior Qaeda members were turned over, men like Muhsin al-Fahdli or Saad bin Laden.

That this image of hostility between Iran and the Taliban remains alive in so many minds is testament only to intellectual sclerosis, from a time when George W. Bush could be mocked for positing an “axis of evil” when everyone knew Shi’ites and Sunnis didn’t co-operate—even though earlier that month Iranian weapons had been sent to Palestinian Sunni jihadists. But consider:

  • Iran’s support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan by necessity supported Sunnis since the Shi’a are a small minority
  • Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda is longstanding and ongoing, including (through the Hizballah cut-out) contact with at least eight of the 9/11 death pilots (p. 240-2) and Iran is the financial support centre for the “Khorasan Group” in Syria.
  • Iran ran camps for Salafi jihadists in Bosnia and supported Ayman az-Zawahiri there during the early 1990s.
  • Iran supported the creation of the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), and then supported it with “money and weapons” in Iraq against U.S. and Iraqi forces. Reports have surfaced that Iran’s help to the I.S. has continued in Syria.

So what was the actual Iranian record in Afghanistan since NATO moved in? Primarily it is one of trying “to achieve its aims through financial means,” funding mosques, schools, “non-governmental” organisations (NGOs), and media centres like the Afghan Voice Agency. Iran concentrates these efforts among the Hazara and the significant Shi’a minority of Tajiks in cities like Mazar-i-Sharif. One aim is to make Khomeini’ism the dominant form of religion among the Shi’a, which involves lots of funding to Shi’a clerics like Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Asef Mohseni, whose Khatam-al Nabyeen Islamic University is a prominent landmark in Kabul and a centre of training for Shi’a clergy, who are now being indoctrinated with veleyat e-faqih. Iran’s strategy, however, is by no means wholly sectarian. Iran also funds Afghan politicians. Mohammed Fahim, a powerful Tajik warlord and until his death in March 2014 the Vice President, was on Iran’s payroll. Another well-known case is that of Mohammad Omar Daudzai, the chief of staff to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who came back from Iran quite literally with “a large bag of cash.” Daudzai is known for his anti-Western views and is a member of Hizb-i-Islami, run Hekmatyar, who has received Iranian money and assistance in planning terrorism. Karzai was absolutely brazen about this. “This is nothing hidden,” Karzai said. “We are grateful for Iranian help … The United States is doing the same thing … providing cash to some of our offices.” But Iran’s anti-Western activities are not limited to soft-power.

As early as November 2001, Iran offered anti-aircraft weapons to the Taliban to “use against the United States and Coalition forces“. Since early 2007, Iranian weapons shipments to the Taliban have been increasing, with the British making an infamous discovery in 2011. In 2009, Iran “offered a reward of $800 for any fighter who killed a NATO soldier.” Iran has trained Taliban fighters in Iran. A Congressional report in October recorded that Iran is still providing “lethal assistance, including light weapons and training” to the Taliban and other Salafi jihadists for use against Western soldiers and has poured money into especially western Afghanistan to expand its power. Iran also sends some of the destitute (Shi’a) Afghan refugees into Syria to repress a population in revolt against a merciless tyranny underwritten by Iran.

How much influence Iran might now be able to exert in Afghanistan is an open question. While the Afghan Shi’a are less than ten percent of the population and have never been particularly close to Iran, as mentioned Iran has skirted all sectarian divides by focussing on the West in Afghanistan. Drawing on Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies, which stand behind so much of the Afghan insurgency, Iran has made its inroads in Afghanistan, spurred on by the sense of Western exhaustion with the mission. While this might be expected to provoke an American rethink about pulling out of Afghanistan entirely, instead the Obama administration is looking to Iran to shore-up Afghanistan, with investment and trade, weakening America’s own sanctions to enable Iranian soft power in Afghanistan. An Iranian sphere of influence in western Afghanistan would not be a boon either for stability or democracy, and certainly not for Western interests.


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