(CNSNews.com) – Amid reports that the Shi’ite militia now claiming to control Yemen had taken possession of U.S. Embassy vehicles and U.S. Marines’ firearms, Iran’s top general declared Wednesday that developments in the troubled Gulf state were evidence of the spread of the “Islamic revolution” throughout the region.
The U.S., Britain, France and Germany have closed their embassies and evacuated staff, and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed Wednesday the administration was looking into the “obviously unacceptable” seizure of vehicles and equipment.
She said she had no details on weapons having been taken, but a Pentagon spokesman said later that members of the embassy’s Marine security detachment had handed over their pistols and rifles at the airport, as they were not permitted to take them on commercial evacuation flights.
Overnight the U.S. Marines disputed that, saying the personal weapons had been “rendered inoperable” at the airport, and that none had been handed over to the Houthi militia.
Psaki told a briefing the U.S. government was asking the militia to return its property.
“We would reiterate that in order to return to Sana’a, respect for our property, respect for our facilities is an essential component of that,” Psaki told a briefing. “So we certainly are requesting they be returned.”
She noted that the militia had stated publicly that “they’ve no desire to go after our interests, go after our materials.”
“So we expect them to abide by their own statements.”
The Iranian-backed militia, which has fought numerous wars against the Yemeni state over the past decade, is ardently anti-American and anti-Israel. Its slogan, roughly translated from the Arabic, is, “Allah is greater. Death to America. Death to Israel. A curse on the Jews. Victory to Islam.”
Asked whether Secretary of State John Kerry had raised the Yemen developments when he met with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif – a two-hour interaction on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany last weekend – Psaki replied, “Not that I’m aware of.”
On Wednesday Major General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), addressed a rally in southeastern Iran, one of many across the nation marking the 36th anniversary of the 1979 revolution that replaced the Shah with a Shi’ite theocracy.
Iran’s Tasnim state news agency quoted him saying as telling the event in Kerman that signs of the spread of the “Islamic revolution” were now obvious in Yemen, as well as in Iraq, Bahrain, Syria and North Africa.
A significant expansion of Iranian influence has been seen in recent years with it support – both directly and through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah – for the Assad regime in Syria; its collaboration with the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government in its battle against Sunni ISIS jihadists; its backing for the Shi’ite opposition in minority Sunni-ruled Bahrain; and now the apparent victory of its Houthi ally in Yemen.
(Soleimani’s reference to North Africa is less clear, although there have been reports in recent years of Iranian-origin weaponry emerging in Islamist conflicts in Somalia and Nigeria. Iran has also made an overt push to strengthen diplomatic relationships in the continent.)
The Qods Force is the IRGC’s unit responsible for security/clandestine/terror operations abroad. Soleimani has emerged from the shadows to become a prominent presence inside Iraq since the ISIS threat emerged last year.
The places Soleimani listed Wednesday as areas of spreading Iranian influence did not include Lebanon, the omission possibly reflecting the fact that Tehran has already long ago established its sway over key elements in that country.
Late last month the Iranian general paid a low-profile visit to Beirut, where a pro-Hezbollah television station published a snapshot of him visiting the tomb of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah military chief and one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists until he was killed in a 2008 bombing in Damascus.
Also buried at the tomb is the late Mughniyah’s son, Jihad, who was killed on January 18 when Israel bombed a vehicle on the Golan Heights in which a senior IRGC officer and several Hezbollah fighters were also killed.
Iran’s spreading influence across the region is a major concern for its main Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is a longstanding supporter of the Sunni rulers of Bahrain, Sunni parties in Iraq and Lebanon, Sunni rebels in Syria, and secessionist elements in the mostly-Sunni southern parts of Yemen.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel predicts that Saudi Arabia may react to the Houthi takeover by resuming its historical support for secessionists in the south, in a bid to undermine the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia.
“The GCC states have the capital to make South Yemen survive,” Riedel wrote, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“It could be a base for Sunni opposition to the Zaydi [Houthi]-dominated north. The south is also the home to much of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which will fight the Saudis for control,” he said. “An independent South Yemen government could invite foreign forces to help it fight AQAP and the Houthis.”
Saudi-Iran tensions play into a sectarian rivalry dating back to a succession rift after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century.
Iran leads the Shi’ite world (other Shi’ite-majority countries are Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan) while Saudi Arabia as custodian of the faith’s two most revered sites is the standard bearer of Sunni Islam.
Shi’ites comprise between 10 and 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.