Sunday, 12 April 2015 19:47

Iran in Yemen?

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US Secretary of State John Kerry said recently Iran is “obviously” aiding the Houthi uprising in Yemen. According to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, "Iran provides financial support for the Houthis and helps them in building weapon factories and providing them with weapons.”[1] "There are 5,000 Iranians, Hezbollah and Iraqi militia on the ground in Yemen," an unnamed diplomatic official in the Gulf is reported as saying.[2] The Editor-in-Chief of the Arab Times of Kuwait calls the Houthis Iran’s “dummy”[3] and “tools” of Iran and Hezbollah.[4] In Britain, “The Telegraph” writes of “the Iranian-backed takeover of Northern Yemen”[5]

Sergei Serebrov, of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, noted that the Telegraph’s claim would be unarguably true had it been followed by the qualification “11 centuries ago.”[6] And he is far from the only observer skeptical that Iran stands behind the Houthi eruption in Yemen. Wikileaks documents analyzed on the Al-Bab website indicate the US was not convinced by the Yemeni government’s repeated claims of Iranian involvement in a series of conflicts with the Houthis over the last decade[7] — claims made by the regime of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now allied with the Houthis (and who in 2011 found refuge in Saudi Arabia, the country now assaulting his forces from the skies). The US Embassy in Yemen, according to a leaked 2009 memo, was more concerned with the interference of Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, which it feared might make Iranian alleged involvement a self-fulfilling prophecy:

 

… we can think of few ways to more effectively encourage Iranian meddling in the Houthi rebellion than to have all of Yemen's Sunni neighbors line up to finance and outfit Ali Abdullah Saleh's self-described ‘Operation Scorched Earth’ against his country's Shia minority.[8]

 

Now, with a fragile Iran-US détente underway and sanctions a step closer to ending, Iran would be risking much more by stepping into the Yemen imbroglio than it would have in 2009. Why unnecessarily antagonize the US and jeopardize the longed-for sanctions breakout for a prize of such questionable practical value? Or for that matter, why antagonize Saudi Arabia? While it’s a widely accepted truth that Iran will get up to any mischief it possibly can against the Saudis, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a point of calling for a mending of relations with the Kingdom soon after his election. The US National Intelligence’s annual security assessment in February also noted that Iran was still seeking to “deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia.”[9]

Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon is already a serious drain on the limited resources of an economy shackled by sanctions. From the Iranian security perspective, those countries are strategically crucial, a buffer between itself and Israel. Not only is Yemen not a buffer against a perceived threat, but its devastating poverty makes it an expensive proposition. A Houthi government under Iranian auspices would require massive financial support. What would be the motive? To reestablish the Persian Empire, the rationale repeatedly put forth the Saleh administration for alleged Iranian meddling in Yemen, according to Wikileaks? Rhetoric aside, behind the scenes the Americans were not convinced.

The smart play for Iran at this critical juncture is not to rock the boat unnecessarily, which corresponds to its official line: a denial that it provides military support to the Houthis coupled with vociferous condemnations of the bombing campaign and calls for all the warring parties to come to the negotiating table.

Whatever external factors are exacerbating the conflict in Yemen, the main spark is internal, and as related to the country’s economic problems as it is to the much-trumpeted Shia-Sunni conflict. Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries, with 50% of the population below the poverty level, despite potentially lucrative fishing and some oil. The recent Saudi withholding of funds from a promised bailout package and the sabotage of oil pipelines and electricity infrastructure in the Mareb Province of Yemen have only compounded economic woes. When President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government abolished energy subsidies last summer, causing a spike in the price of gasoline, the result was protests in the streets with the army called in to put them down. Social unrest is common, and the populace has arms and knows how to use them – some say guns far outnumber people in Yemen. Even in peaceful times, Sana’a has the feel of a Wild West town: men strolling the streets or sitting in cafes with their “ali” (AK-47) and pickups zooming by with mounted chain machine guns.

Yet Sana’a was taken by the Houthis without much of a fight. That and their dramatic advance to Aden owes much to a formidable domestic ally, former Yemeni president Saleh, ousted in Yemen’s “Arab Spring” but still commanding a great deal of loyalty in the government and military. He is a wily political survivor who has switched sides more than once in the past, this time making an advantageous alliance with his former foes. It was Saleh’s regime killed Al-Houthi, founder of the movement.

Trade and economic ties between Iran and Yemen were weak under former president Saleh; and under President Hadi they had been all but shut down. But with Hadi fleeing to Aden and the Houthis essentially taking control of the government in February, preliminary agreements were signed between Yemen and Iran on reconstructing the port of Al Hudaydah on the Red Sea and establishing regular direct Iran-Yemen passenger flights. And no wonder, with all other outside funding cut off or on hold. Apparently, the prospect of this deal too much for the Saudis and their allies. Accusations followed immediately that the flights were for military supplies from Iran, and soon after that, the bombs began coming down.

The Zaydiyyah Shia branch in Yemen, to whom the Houthis belong, differs in many ways from the Ja’fari Islam of Iran, and is similar in many ways to Sunni Islam. The two Shia schools do, however, share the concept of the Imamate, as distinct from the Sunni; and ideological resonance seems to have been increasing in recent decades. The Zaydi imamate ruled from 897 to 1962, its territory expanding and contracting, but the heartland always remaining in the mountainous northwest of Yemen, where the Houthis are now based. Like the Zaydis, Ja’faris and all Shia sects, the Houthis come into being as a force of opposition to the powers that be, in the 1990s. The founder of the Houthi movement, also known as “Ansar Allah,” was Said Hossein Al-Houthi, a Yemeni parliamentarian of aristocratic heritage and a religious education from Sa’ada, that same mountainous Zaydi heartland in the north of Yemen, bordering on Saudi Arabia. His family enjoys great respect among the tribes there, and in Yemen, tribal alliances are everything. Al-Houthi came into conflict with former president Saleh in the early 2000s. In addition to defending the interests and culture of the Zaydi minority against what he saw as an encroaching Salafi presence backed by Saleh, Al-Houthi decried Yemen’s alliance with and reliance on the US and Saudi Arabia. After increasingly tense clashes with the government, he was killed in 2004. His brothers, primarily Abdul Malik, now lead the movement, which has also made battling corruption a centerpiece of its rhetoric. Despite the Houthis’ “Death to America” chants and placards, some Yemenis’ believe that the Americans may not have been opposed, at least early on, to the Houthis’ growing power as a counterbalance to the greater evil of Al-Qaeda and other extremist Sunni groups in Yemen. Just to further muddy the waters….

 



[1] http://news.yahoo.com/far-does-irans-backing-yemen-rebels-220527393.html;_ylt=AwrBT8A11CdV0vIArn1XNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEzOGJjZG5lBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDVklQNjE5XzEEc2VjA3Nj

[2] http://news.yahoo.com/far-does-irans-backing-yemen-rebels-220527393.html;_ylt=AwrBT8A11CdV0vIArn1XNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEzOGJjZG5lBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDVklQNjE5XzEEc2VjA3Nj

[3]http://www.arabtimesonline.com/NewsDetails/tabid/96/smid/414/ArticleID/212500/reftab/96/t/Rouhani-just-chill/Default.aspx

[4]http://www.arabtimesonline.com/NewsDetails/tabid/96/smid/414/ArticleID/212668/reftab/96/Default.aspx

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/yemen/11487796/Yemen-is-a-battlefield-for-Saudi-Arabia-and-Iran.html

[6] http://echo.msk.ru/programs/sorokina/1521146-echo/

[7] http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2015/april/yemen-us-houthis.htm#sthash.uo83wn9T.u7sQ9zTs.dpbs

[8] ibid.

[9] http://www.newsweek.com/iran-and-hezbollah-omitted-us-terror-threat-list-amid-nuclear-talks-314073

Read 24086 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 April 2015 20:55
Lana Ravandi-Fadai

Lana (Svetlana) Ravandi-Fadai (PhD), Senior Researcher of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the author of over 50 scholarly works.