Bloomberg (Feb 19) — The commander of the foreign wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was upbeat as he addressed a rally marking the 36th anniversary of the uprising that ushered in theocratic rule.
“We are witnessing the export of the Islamic revolution throughout the region,” Qassem Suleimani, the increasingly public head of the elite Quds Force, said last week. “From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.”
While grand declarations regularly feature in speeches commemorating the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah, this year Suleimani’s words carry more meaning. As it attempts to negotiate a nuclear deal that would free its economy from sanctions, Shiite Iran’s influence is increasingly visible from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean. Sunni states, especially those like Saudi Arabia that have waged proxy wars with Iran in a fight for regional supremacy, are uneasy.
“Iran’s threat is growing — either due to Iran’s success or to our failures — but Iran is advancing,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator who has advised Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief in Riyadh. Iran “has succeeded in Syria in maintaining Bashar al-Assad, succeeded in Iraq in having all the Shiites on its side and it has expanded now to Yemen.”
The Houthi rebels who this month removed a Saudi-backed president from power in Yemen follow the Zaidi sect of Islam that’s linked to Shiism, Iran’s dominant religion. The group’s overseas links are disputed, yet many analysts say it draws funds and inspiration from Iran.
Iran has expressed support for the Houthis. In October, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he hoped that the rebels play the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah does in Lebanon.