Iran is running the Shia rebel operations. Iran is their main source of outside support and the Iranian ambassador, one of the few in the rebel-occupied capital, is a former Quds Force general who is in Yemen more as a Quds Force commander than a diplomat. This ambassador doesn’t make many requests, but he does issue a lot of orders. The IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) is the separate military force formed in the 1980s to protect the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s. The Quds Force is a component of the IRGC that starts, supervises and sustains foreign rebellions and terror campaigns to expand Iranian power and keep potential enemies on the defensive. The IRGC is also the main component of the radical faction in the Iranian government. The radicals, who put the expansion of Iranian power above everything else, are at war with the “nationalists” in the Iranian leadership that want to emphasize improving the economy and living standards for Iranians. The religious rulers of Iran see the nationalists as a threat and have given radicals, including the Quds Force, more power and resources in 2021. Yemen is seen as the cheapest and most successful of Iran’s overseas wars. Those in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are all suffering setbacks and embarrassing Iranian defeats. In Yemen Iran is regularly and expensively attacking archenemy Saudis Arabia directly. It’s not just the Shia rebels of northern Yemen, but the Iranian ballistic missile and cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabia as well as the growing use of naval mines in the Red Sea and land mines wherever the Shia rebels are operating. This is why the Shia rebels refuse to discuss any peace deal that includes the removal of Iranian operations from Yemen. In typical Iranian fashion, the Iranian government denies that it is behind the continuing violence in Yemen. That sort of worked for a while after the current civil war broke out in 2014. After a few years Iran admitted, or, rather, an IRGC general boasted that Iran had been covertly supporting an uprising among the Shia Arab tribes of Yemen for years. Many Yemenis knew this but were ignored for a long time because Yemen was famous for its many conspiracy theories and scammers. Yemen has long been rated as one the most corrupt nations on the planet and that plays a large part in Iranian success at continuing to smuggle weapons and Iranian personnel into Yemen, If you know who to bribe and can afford it, anything is possible.
The Iranian problem is that Shia Arabs are a minority in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There are lots of Shia Arab tribes just across the border in southwest Saudi Arabia but those tribes have been well treated by the Saudis and see no point in supporting their violent cousins across the border. The Saudis continue taking care of their Shia subjects by preventing the hundreds of Iranian missiles (mostly ballistic or cruise types) from hitting anything valuable (property or people) in the southwest. Iran continues to deny any involvement in all those attacks, and insists it’s just resourceful Shia tribesmen building ballistic missiles and explosives laden UAVs used on one-way trips as cruise missiles using their own resources. No one, including Iran or Shia Arab rebels believe that but that remains the official position of the rebels and Iran.
The most powerful weapon Iran and Yemen’s Shia rebels have is the disunity of the rest of Yemen. The Sunni tribes in the south want autonomy or a separate state, a situation that was the norm for centuries. A united Yemen is a relatively new concept, only achieved in the 1990s. In the north, where the Shia tribes predominate, there are Sunni tribes that oppose the civil war, as well as a growing number of Shia Arabs. There are also disagreements among the Arab oil states, mainly the Saudis and the UAE, on how to deal with the Iranian threat in Yemen.
With all this in mind, Iranian efforts in Yemen are not crazy, risky or expensive.
Iranian operations in Yemen had one positive side effect for Saudi and UAE fighter pilots. While not as efficient as the Israelis, Saudi and the UAE were allies in Yemen from 2015 to 2020 and their pilots and ground forces gained a lot of practical combat experience. By 2020 Saudi and UAE pilots are much more accurate and confident than they were during the first two years (2015-16). On the ground the Saudis and UAE supplied artillery and troops trained to quickly and accurately request and direct air and artillery support. All these ground teams have a year or more of combat experience and that makes a difference. The U.S., which supplied most of the combat aircraft and pilot training for the Saudis and UAE, had long urged both nations to do more to improve the quality of pilot selection and training. The UAE was more receptive and the differences showed up in Yemen early on. After thousands of combat sorties together the Saudi and UAE pilots became much more equal in capabilities. The effectiveness of Saudi air and artillery support is what makes it possible to frustrate a six-month long Shia rebel campaign to seize the only oil fields in Yemen as well as Marib province.
Unable to do much about Saudi air power Iran has increased its efforts to disrupt traffic in the Red Sea, where several major Saudi ports handle most of the imports for western Saudi and a network of pipelines and ship loading facilities that soon will be able to handle all of Saudi oil exports. Suez Canal traffic passes through the Red Sea and the second largest Yemeni port is on the Red Sea. All this justifies the increased Iranian efforts to covertly use naval mines in the Red Sea. While these are Iranian mines, its proxy Yemen Shia rebels take credit for placing the mines in the water. Hundreds of these mines have been placed off the Yemen Red Sea coast in the last few years but the damage so far has been minor. No ships have been sunk, despite the fact that a small percentage of the mines were more modern and deadly bottom mines that rest on the ocean floor in shallow water (no more than 60 meters/190 feet deep) and use pressure sensors to detect a target and detonate. The Iranian bottom mines seen off Yemen so far are not the most modern design and suitable only for shallower (20 meters) coastal waters. Perhaps the less-effective mines were used on purpose, to disrupt shipping, but not sink a lot of it because that might create a major international uproar and calls for international military action against Iran.
The current naval mine threat off Yemen is a recognized danger to all ships and in early 2020 shipping companies warned their ship captains that many more naval mines, of the contact type, were floating into the Red Sea from the north Yemen coast. That coast is off the Shia rebel home province of Sadaa and the rebels had been releasing a few of these mines periodically for years in an effort to disrupt Red Sea traffic to and from Saudi Arabia. The currents generally flow north in this part of the Red Sea, towards the major Saudi Red Sea port and the entrance to the Suez Canal. The floating contact mines are a 19th century development that has been improved on for over a century and is still used because it is cheap and effective. Iran provided the Shia rebels with these mines, which are normally kept in place by a cable or chain between the mine and an anchor on the sea bottom. The Shia rebels cut the cable and let the mines drift into the Red Sea. American warships are part of the international naval blockade of Yemen, to prevent smuggling and to deal with the mines, which are a danger to the warships as well as commercial shipping. During 2020 there was a major effort to locate and neutralize these free-floating mines. By the end of 2020 over 160 mines were found and neutralized. The rebels continued putting mines in the water during 2021 and the number found and neutralized remained at 2020 levels. On land the Saudis have paid for a demining effort that began in 2018 and has so far removed over 260,000 mines and other explosive items left behind by the Shia rebels.
The Shia rebels continue putting these mines in the water and the ground, claim self-defense against oppression by the Yemeni government and their Arab nations helping them.
August 4, 2021: In the north Saudi air defenses shot down a rebel UAV armed as a cruise missile, apparently headed for the southwestern Saudi city of Khamis Mushait in Asir province. In the past, when most of these attacks were with Iranian ballistic missiles, the target was often the nearby King Khalid Air Base. The air base has stronger defenses against aircraft, especially low flying cruise missiles and UAVs. So now the target is the nearby city. For the Iranians, any dead Saudis is a win.
August 2, 2021: In the north (Jawf province) and central Yemen (Marib province) government forces halted another major attack by rebel forces. These attacks became a regular occurrence in early 2020 because of an Arab coalition manpower shortage. That was the result of the UAE withdrawing most of its troops and a new government in Sudan withdrawing the 15,000 mercenaries they had been providing. The coalition still had the airpower advantage and once their ground forces had been redistributed it was possible to stop and even reverse some Shia gains. This has not discouraged the rebels who believe time is now on their side as long as the Iranian support continues. The Iranians provide cash and this is sufficient to attract new fighters, even if many of them are inexperienced teenagers. There are plenty of unemployed and hungry families in rebel territory and the only jobs available are with the rebel forces. The risks are not as high as you might think because rebel tactics, developed over generations of experience, emphasize movement and seek out areas where the government forces are vulnerable to attacks or groups of rebels blocking a key road or trail. The rebels have to move carefully to avoid Saudi aerial surveillance and attacks. When there is a fire fight it is usually brief because of the threat of air or artillery support showing up. A few successes can mean taking control over a lot of territory, only to lose it later as the government forces organize a clearing operation using lots of aerial surveillance and air strikes. Casualties are low and success is temporary. After 18 months of this the rebels have not gained any of their major objectives (the oil fields and Marib province). Gaining control of Jawf province is less of a priority and equally unsuccessful so far.
In the south (Bayda/Baida province) the rebel offensive has been equally fluid and inconsequential so far, even though defending Bayda province is of secondary importance to the government forces.
July 28, 2021: In the north, Shia rebels launched four ballistic missiles and two cruise missiles (UAVs carrying explosives on a one-way mission) towards targets in Saudi Arabia. All were intercepted. Mass attacks like this are an effort to overwhelm Saudi air defenses.
July 24, 2021: In the north, Shia rebels launched at least one ballistic missile and three cruise missiles (UAVs carrying explosives on a one-way mission) towards targets in Saudi Arabia. All were intercepted. There may have been other ballistic missiles launched but sometimes the missiles fail on launch or shortly thereafter and never get across the border.
July 23, 2021: In the south Saudi and UAE backed factions of the STC (South Transitional Council) clashed again, but without violence as members of a UAE backed faction arrested leaders of a Saudi backed STC faction that is contributing forces to the defense of Bayda province. Both factions are supposed to be supporting southern independence but some of the tribes are willing to fight the Shia rebels while other factions believe the STC should only defend itself and is willing to make a peace deal with the Shia rebels. This would be a disaster for the Saudis, who cannot tolerate an Iranian presence on their southern border.
A month ago, there was a violent clash in Aden city between rival STC factions that left two dead and fifteen wounded. Three weeks of this fighting has paralyzed the distribution of foreign aid in the city of Aden. The factions cannot agree on who should control what in Aden and because of that essential maintenance on power plants and other infrastructure is stalled. This is unpopular with most Aden residents and is making the city unlivable. The UAE has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and supported the formation of the STC in early 2017. The STC is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy or independence.
July 19, 2021: In Saudi Arabia the government has told the media that if they can go public with any criticism of the UAE they might be holding back. The government discourages media criticism of allies and more rarely allows criticism of long-time allies, like the UAE. The Saudis earlier allowed free discussion of proposed closer ties with Israel. The Saudi-UAE rivalry goes back a long way because the UAE have, for centuries, been merchants and traders who constantly deal with foreigners and had to be nimble at that to survive. The Saudis, along with most of the Bedouin tribes of the interior (now united as Saudi Arabia) were more into local politics and disputes over who would control the Moslem holy places at Mecca and Medina.
July 18, 2021: In the south (port of Aden) a small tanker abandoned near the port in 2014 finally sank, spilling some fuel oil from its tanks into the water and making life difficult for some of the local fishermen. A coastal area west of the port has long been a place where ships of various sizes are abandoned. Locals strip the ships of any items that can be carried off but there is no effort to carry out a complete dismantling of these ships because no one knows who owns them and no one will invest in a ship dismantling (scrap yard) operation.