Readers may have missed the (relatively few) reports of alleged Iranian support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has now spilled over the Saudi Arabian border and drawn that country into the conflict. There's a good in-depth report about it at the Christian Science Monitor, and Al Jazeera TV (whose reliability and objectivity are, of course, open to question) has this TV report, which should be taken cum grano salis:
This makes me think. Yemen has been a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity (remember the USS Cole bombing of 2000, and the CIA missile strike that killed the man allegedly behind it, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and a number of other Al Qaeda members in that country in 2002?) If Iran is trying to aid Shi'ite Muslim rebels there against the Sunni Muslim Government, all sorts of nasty ideas come to mind. Consider:
- Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz, and can cut off maritime access to and from the Persian Gulf at any time. That would shut off over 50% of the world's oil supply. To break such a blockade would be difficult and costly, militarily and in many other ways.
- Yemen controls access to and from the Red Sea via the Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb. Control of this maritime choke-point also confers control over traffic to and from the Suez Canal in Egypt - a massive proportion of the world's merchant traffic at any time, and a vital route for US and NATO maritime supplies and reinforcements in the event of a military confrontation over the Straits of Hormuz. If access to Suez were blocked, all such supplies and reinforcements would have to travel around Africa or come across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, over much longer distances, making the mounting of a challenge to Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf far more difficult.
- Iran is still the single most important opponent Saudi Arabia faces in the Middle East. If Iran can have its surrogates menace Saudi Arabia from below while it does so across the Persian Gulf, it puts that nation in a much more difficult strategic and tactical situation.
- There's also an Al Qaeda presence across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, a nation without an effective government. If Iran could liaise with the terrorist presence there, and also perhaps co-opt the assistance of Somali pirates, their aid coupled with Iranian surrogates in Yemen could close the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden even more effectively than the latter could do so alone - and just imagine what Somali pirates armed with Iranian missiles could do to shipping!
- If Iran could supply its surrogates in Yemen with effective anti-ship missiles (as it's already done with Hezbollah in Lebanon - see the attack on INS Hanit in 2006), it could have them close the Bab-el-Mandeb at a moment's notice, and render its ongoing use both dangerous and costly. Iran could take advantage of the confusion to close the Straits of Hormuz, and defy the West to do anything about it (perhaps simultaneously launching a nuclear strike against Israel, as it's expected to be able to do in a few years from now).
This combination of factors does NOT make me sleep easy at night. The situation will bear careful watching.