The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East said Wednesday that Iran and al-Qaeda are exploiting political uncertainty in Yemen and the region as a whole to expand their influence.
“Iran operations are similar to those (of) al-Qaeda,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told reporters in Sana’a, a day after talks with Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
“Iran tries to exploit uncertainty and unhappiness in countries of the region,” he said, adding that al-Qaeda was also trying to “exploit opportunities where there is political chaos.
Feltman said the U.S. views “with concern reports of rising Iranian influence in parts of Yemen,” and that Washington was working with Sana’a and “partners elsewhere in the region to push back against Iranian interference where it occurs.”
Earlier this month, U.S. Central Command chief General James Mattis warned that Iran was “providing more (material support) to include weapons, not just money” to Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, and trying to “influence the non-Houthi tribes” as well.
Feltman acknowledged al-Qaeda’s expansion in Yemen’s mostly lawless southern and eastern provinces, saying he was aware of the “challenges” it posed to the Arabian Peninsula country.
But he added he remains “convinced in the long term, a managed transition plan to a democratic election in February 2014… is the best long-term policy against al-Qaeda.”
Feltman also met Yemeni government officials, activists and foreign diplomats during his visit, just days after a top U.S. counter-terrorism official raised concerns that members of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime were disrupting the country’s political transition.
Last November, Saleh signed his powers over to Hadi who in February was elected to the presidency in a single candidate vote as stipulated by the U.S.-backed deal, which also calls for the launch of an all-inclusive national dialogue to address Yemen’s long standing conflicts.
The deal also calls for restructuring the country’s divided armed forces, a key to ensuring stability.
Saleh’s sons and nephews still command Yemen’s elite military forces which pro-democracy activists blame for much of the bloodshed during the year-long uprising against Saleh’s rule.
Other units are under the control of Saleh’s opponents who defected in support of the protesters.
“The military reorganization is an essential part of the stability of Yemen,” said Feltman, though he conceded it would likely be a “long process” before it is complete.