Until a few weeks ago, Yemen hardly featured in the Iranian political landscape.
Now, however, it gets top billing as the latest nation to embrace the Khomeinist ideology.
“The people of Yemen have joined Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in a common struggle for the glory of Islam,” said Ayatollah Ali Saeedi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s religious commissar. Last Monday, Iran’s Kayhan newspaper, reflecting the views of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, reported that forces were being deployed to capture Aden and five southern Yemeni provinces.
Are we witnessing a new episode in centuries of Iranian interest in what was once known as Arabia Felix or Happy Arabia?
Iran’s first intervention came in the 6th century CE when Yemeni Prince Sayf Ibn Dhi-Yazan traveled to the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon (Mada’en to Arabs) for an audience with Khosrow Anushiravan, known to the Arabs as Kasra.
Sayf wanted help to dislodge the Aksumite dynasty in southern Yemen and beat off perennial Abyssinian incursions. Kasra obliged by sending an expeditionary force of around 600 men led by Vahraz, a bombastic general and a master of self-promotion, a bit like Gen. Qassem Suleimani today.
The project succeeded and Sayf was able to impose his Himyarite dynasty on most of the territory. Legend has it that an army of jinns joined the Persian expeditionary force to achieve victory. Sayf’s mother was supposed to have been a princess of the jinns.
However, developing grandiose ambitions, Vahraz refused to return home, and carved out a mini-kingdom for himself.
According to history mixed with legend, as is often the case in our region, the Persian colony in Yemen became a magnet for malcontents from other parts of the empire. Salman Al-Farsi, a Persian aristocrat from Kazeroun, who later converted to Islam and became a companion of the Prophet, is supposed to have been among them after leaving his post as governor of Ctesiphon as a result of royal court intrigues. However, within the first decades of the 7th century all traces of a Persian presence in Arabia Felix had disappeared, confirming the will-o’-the-wisp nature of imperial dreams.
The next time Yemen caught the attention of Iranians was in the 9th century.
By that time, Iran had largely converted to Islam and been drawn into the new religion’s endless schisms. While most Iranian converts were Sunnis, there were also small Shi’ite communities in several places, notably the Caspian littoral. Even then, Shi’ites were divided by dynastic and theological feuds.
One Iranian Shi’ite kingdom was that of Alavis, who regarded Zayd Ibn Ali, a grandson of Al-Husayn—who was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad—as Imam, while other Shi’ites followed another grandson, Muhammad. Located in Gilan, the first state created by Zaydis lasted from 864 to 900 in its initial form and from 914 to 928 in a smaller version.
As pressure from dynasties created by other Islamic sects grew, the Zaydis of Gilan dispatched missionaries to other Muslim lands in search of converts and, if possible, lands to rule. The enterprise succeeded in creating Zaydi states in central Arabia, North Africa, southern Spain, and more importantly, Yemen, which was to become the longest lasting home of Zaydism.
With Yemen falling under Ottoman domination—though it was never annexed—contacts with Iran dwindled. Then, the imposition of Twelver Shi’ism as state religion in Iran under the Safavids added a political dimension to theological differences. Zaydis were accused of being crypto-Mu’tazilites, preferring reason over faith.
Whenever sectarianism reached fever pitch in Twelver seminaries, Zaydis, along with other offshoots of Shi’ism such as Nizaris, were branded “deviants” or worse.
For almost 1,000 years there was little direct contact between Iran and Yemen.
Iranians knew Yemen largely as a concept—a shibboleth of myth and history. They remembered that King (or Prophet) Solomon had had an affair with Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba), and that Bahram, the Sassanid king, had a Yemeni concubine. But that was almost all they knew.
In the 1960s, when Iran, worried about Nasserist domination in Yemen, started raising its profile there, only one cleric in Qom, Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani, knew something about Zaydism.
Although Iran supported Imam Badr Ibn Ahmad in the Yemeni civil war and began to take fresh interest in that remote land, the Communists’ takeover in South Yemen persuaded Iranian policymakers to set up a Yemen Desk.
In the early 1970s, Iran’s involvement in crushing the Communist insurgency in Dhofar, Oman, further heightened Yemen’s profile because the insurgents—trained and armed by the USSR and its Cuban and East German allies—were based out of South Yemen.
At the time, Tehran was concerned about Soviets gaining a presence in the Gulf of Aden and thus being in a position to threaten the maritime shipping lanes used by oil tankers. The Soviet navy had flown its flag in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasar and the south Yemeni ports of Mukalla and Aden. Reports often concocted by the CIA also spoke of a Soviet aero-naval base on the Yemeni island of Socotra. Iranian strategists formulated possible responses to the Soviets seizing control of Ras Musandam, dominating the Gulf of Aden from Socotra and threatening the Bab El-Mandeb strait from Aden as well as the Ethiopian and Somali coasts.
Though often fabricated or widely exaggerated, those fears helped make Yemen an obsession in Tehran during this period. (In 2007, thanks to special permission from president Ali Abdullah Saleh, I visited the island of Socotra, where I ran into a herd of goats but found absolutely no trace of any Soviet base.)
By 1974 Iran had found a strong ally in Col. Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, who seized power in a coup with the help of future president Saleh.
As president, Hamdi visited Tehran and became the darling of the Iranian establishment.
A paragon of charm, he had ambitious plans for modernizing Yemen, and the Shah was more than willing to help, starting with an aid package worth an estimated 100 million US dollars. Over 2,000 Iranian technicians, operating under the label of the “Universal Welfare Legion,” were sent to Yemen to help build roads, clinics and schools. A military mission headed by Gen. Khorsand had the task of reforming the Yemeni army’s Soviet-style structure which was established during the period of Egyptian–Nasserist domination. Work also began on building mooring facilities for the Iranian navy in Al-Salif and Al-Hudaydah. Some mullahs of Qom and Mash’had were also reportedly bribed to issue fatwas formally acknowledging Zaydis as Shi’ites.
However, by 1977, when Tehran policymakers believed they had it all worked out in Yemen, Hamdi was dead, murdered in a coup which was, once again, engineered by Saleh. I was personally deeply saddened by this, if only because I had written that Yemen was my favorite Arab country and, having interviewed Hamdi, presented him as “a ray of hope in a world of darkness.”
In a state of panic, Tehran had to arrange for the speedy repatriation of Iranian military and civilian technicians sent to help Yemen become “modernized” as “Happy Arabia” entered an unhappy period that was to witness the murder of yet another president, Ahmad Al-Ghashmi, a series of massacres in Aden and Sana’a, two civil wars, a reunion and a break-up, to mention only a few incidents. The dream of an Imperial Iranian Navy policing the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden vanished like smoke.
I remember a remark by the then-foreign minister, Abbas Ali Khalatbari: “We didn’t know that Yemen was such a hornet’s nest.”
Indeed, we didn’t, and we still don’t.