One thing every thinking person should have learnt from the Iraq intelligence debacle was to treat claims of state support for external armed groups with caution (see Wikipedia for a run-down of debunked allegations that Saddam's regime supported al Qaeda). Some simple questions about the sourcing of information, the motivations of people who make such claims and the level of analysis such information is subject to before it is reported are all good starting points.
Recent reports of Iranian activity in the region provide a good case in point where the analytical hairs on the back of one's neck start to stand up.
The first instance was the seizure by Yemeni and US forces of weapons on board a dhow bound for the Red Sea port of Makhla. The reports indicate that a range of Iranian weapons were seized, including shoulder-fire anti-aircraft missiles and suicide vests. The insinuation was that Iran was supplying Shi'a Houthi rebels who have been fighting an ongoing campaign against the Yemeni Government, and on occasion the Saudis. The UN has been asked to investigate.
A few queries arise from these accounts. First, the source of the weapons is not entirely clear, as this NY Times report outlines. Second, a combination of advanced anti-aircraft missiles and suicide belts that can be manufactured anywhere seems like a strange mixed lot for a state to export to rebels who could very well make their own suicide vests. Also, the Houthis have tended to be on the receiving end of suicide attacks, not the perpetrator.
Finally, while Iran may seek to act as spoiler on Saudi Arabia's borders, there is no ideological fraternity between Yemeni Zaydi Shi'a and Twelver Shi'a of the Iranian type. They share a common ancestry a millenium ago, but they share no clerical, juristic or educational links that would justify them being referred to as being co-religionists.
At the same time as the alleged Iranian weapons shipment was seized, a shipment of some 3500 Turkish automatic weapons was seized in Aden. No hint of Sunni Turkish governmental support for Sunni secessionists in the south on this occasion, though. It barely rated a mention outside the region, and the Yemeni press took the line that this was criminal activity rather than state sponsorship. By contrast, no thought was ever entertained that perhaps the Iranian weapons transfer was also a criminal enterprise.
Next was a report in the Washington Post that Iran has been simultaneously helping the Assad regime fight the opposition and preparing for the day after its fall by supporting a 50,000-strong militia force in Syria. Given the Australian army is 30,000-strong, that is a big militia, and the size of the Iranian and Hizbullah force necessary to support it would be enormous. There is certainly enough evidence that some Hizbullah members are operating in Syria in some fashion, but the sheer size of the Post claim should have had people asking some sourcing questions, which they have.
The Iranian Government is trying to shape the region to its advantage, just as its regional and international competitors are. And enough crazy, fabricated claims are made by Tehran to influence opinion about their capabilities that we should react cautiously to any claims made by those outside Iran who have an opposing agenda.
Photo by Flickr user Official US Navy Imagery.