For the first time, a senior Islamic Republic official has directly confirmed that Iran is sending weapons and military equipment to the Houthi rebel group in Yemen – without masking it with the cliché phrases such as “political support” and “advisory help”.
Even after being rebuked by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards commander in question, Rostam Ghasemi, did not back down. He went on to point out that other senior Guards commanders have made similar statements in the past.
Rostam Ghasemi is referred to in some Iranian political circles as a “Russophile” – or at least, as one who had questionable dealings with Russia’s petroleum industry while serving as Minister of Oil in the Ahmadinejad administration. Now, he has made a potentially game-changing disclosure in an interview with a Russian TV network.
The most significant aspect of Ghasemi’s interview was that he confirmed Iran has been giving Yemeni Houthis arms and military equipment. In the exclusive discussion with Russia Today’s Arabic service, he said the Revolutionary Guards had provided weapons "in a very limited way" to the Houthis, had “dispatched military advisors” to Yemen, had “trained members of Houthi forces” and had taught the Houthis how to produce advanced weapons on their own.
He also claimed that the Houthis can now even produce their own drones, emphasizing again that Iran had only directly provided them with a “limited” quantity of arms.
Russia Today introduced Rostam Ghasemi as the economic deputy to Revolutionary Guards' commander-in-chief. He has recently become the highest Iranian military official and is seemingly the only current Islamic Republic official to, at least verbally, confirm Iran’s military aid to the Houthis, which is in violation of United Nation Security Council resolutions.
Over the past six years, despite all evidence to the contrary, Iran has consistently denied providing the Houthis with weapons and has only confirmed it gave the militant group “political support” and “advisory help”.
Reactions to the Interview
Rostam Ghasemi’s statements immediately made news both in the international media and within Iranian political circles. The Iranian Foreign Ministry, which just two days earlier had issued a statement protesting against what it called “media sabotage of the Foreign Ministry and the negotiating team in Vienna”, issued a fresh statement on Saturday, April 24 in which it railed against Rostam Ghasemi’s statements as “against reality and the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Yemen”.
Iran’s “support for Yemen is [only] political,” the short statement added, claiming again that the Islamic Republic supports efforts by the United Nations to find a political resolution to the conflict.
Concurrently, in an interview with the Arabic service of the Kremlin’s Sputnik news agency, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior leader of the Houthi paramilitary, denied Ghasemi’s statements.
“Perhaps Ghasemi has said these things to provoke Persian Gulf counties, and wants to start a direct confrontation with them,” he said. “This is what I think. He only wants to provoke.”
“Whose Foreign Ministry is it?”
Not only did Ghasemi not retract his statements, but he ridiculed the Foreign Ministry’s statement. “The gentlemen at the Foreign Ministry are so into the futile game of negotiations that they have forgotten about the revolutionary policies of the Islamic Iran!” he tweeted.
He also reposted an old interview with General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of the General Staff of Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic. In the clip, Bagheri had said: “We do give advisory help to the people’s army to Yemen and the Revolutionary Guards are responsible for providing this help. We will stand by the people of Yemen.”
Bagheri wrote that it would be “nice” if the Foreign Ministry attend to General Bagheri’s past statements so that “they remember which country’s foreign ministry this is”.
Is the Foreign Ministry Right?
The war of words between Rostam Ghasemi and the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic is almost comical: a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force has claimed Iran has a military presence in Yemen while the Foreign Ministry says it does not.
There is no question that all of Iran’s policies, strategies and actions taken in the region, especially in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, are within the purview of the Revolutionary Guards. The Foreign Ministry plays absolutely no role in these movements. In some of these countries, even the Iranian ambassadors are senior agents of the Quds Force.
For years it has been reported that an individual by the name of Abdolreza Shahlai is the Islamic Republic’s real representative in Yemen. He is perhaps the most mysterious Revolutionary Guards commander and no confirmed image or other personal information about him has been made public. Even when the US government set a $15 million reward for information about his activities and connections, it published not his picture but a drawing.
Iran’s current “ambassador” to the Houthis is another mysterious figure by the name of Hassan Irlou: also a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, and who only recently stood before the cameras after years of serving in the role.
The US and other Western countries have repeatedly said that the Islamic Republic’s military aid to the Houthis has been going on for years, and is a serious impediment to achieving peace and stability in this war-torn country. Most recently, US special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, said Iran’s assistance to the Houthis was both “considerable” and “deadly”.
“The Houthis receive considerable funding, training, and other support from Iran,” Lenderking told the US Congress’s House Committee on April 21. “Last October, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general entered Houthi-controlled areas of the country and was being called the Iranian ‘ambassador’ to the Houthis.
“His continued presence in Sana’a casts doubt on the Houthi assertion that they are not a proxy of Iran. If the Houthis are not acting as a proxy or partner of Iran, it is time they engage seriously in our efforts to reach agreement on a ceasefire and resume political talks.”
Who is Rostam Ghasemi?
Rostam Ghasemi has announced that he wants to be a candidate in the June presidential election. He has a strong presence on media and social networks, and is among 10 conservative candidates who want to run for president.
Born in 1964, Ghasemi joined the Revolutionary Guards when he was 17 and has remained a member of the military organization ever since. He was mainly active at the Guards’ Noah Naval Base and also served as commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, the Guards’ major engineering arm and one of Iran's largest contractors in industrial and development projects. For two years, from 2011 to 2013, he was also the Minister of Petroleum under President Ahmadinejad and is now the economic deputy to the Revolutionary Guards' commander-in-chief.
Around three weeks ago he participated in a chat on the video messaging app Clubhouse, taking many questions from participants. His answers, however, did not reflect well on him and angered a number of viewers who said they found him “evasive” and “short on general knowledge”.
On Friday, April 23, he joined another Clubhouse room and not only reiterated his previous denials — including his strange emphasis that he had not had any relations with Babak Zanjani, a convicted money launderer — but also refused to provide any clear answer to the inevitable follow-up questions about providing the Houthis with weapons and military equipment.
The Iranian presidential election is scheduled to take place on June 18. So far most of those who have announced their candidacy are current or former commanders of the Revolutionary Guards. For some time now, the idea of a “military government” has been promoted in Iran and supporters of such a government have been telling Iranians it is “the only way out” of the problems that their country is facing.