The Yemen Conflict – What Role Does Iran Play?

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Source : http://elaph.com/

By Camille de Félice, translated by Amy Reid and Emily Milne

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Yemen has experienced a series of significant demonstrations. These demonstrations led to President Saleh stepping down in November 2011, and being replaced by Mansour Hadi in February 2012. Quickly, the north of the country was engulfed in rising tensions, which progressively spread to other provinces. The Houthi Rebellion, which adheres to the Shia branch of Islam, accused the Yemeni government of marginalising them, and demanded greater autonomy. In September 2014, the group took over the capital, which prompted President Hadi to flee. This led to a coalition of nations[1] led by Riyadh intervening in March 2015. Fearing that the rebellion would spread, their goal was to protect the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen[2]. These countries, which follow the Sunni branch of Islam, also wanted to counterbalance Iranian influence in the Gulf, while Tehran has in effect been accused of supporting the Houthi Rebellion, since it is Shia.

We therefore have to question Iran’s role in the Yemen crisis and the interests it is defending. I shall examine the accusations of interference levied against Tehran, which Iran formally denies. I will then look at Saudi Arabia’s position, which will allow me to finish by underlining the element of a ‘proxy war’ that is found in the Yemen crisis.

Starting in April 2015, the Saudi Foreign Minister condemned Iran’s attitude and advised the country “not to assist the criminal activities of the Houthis against the Yemeni regime”, especially by “stopping the delivery of weapons”. According to Saudi sources, boats transporting weapons to the Houthis were intercepted on several occasions, as was the case last September in the Arabian Sea.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has sought to return to the fore of the geopolitical scene and is looking to eventually lead the Muslim world. According to expert, Masri Feki, Iran wants to “[restore] Shia Islam in the Muslim world, in the context of the general Islamisation of the world.” [3]After having tried fairly unsuccessfully to export its revolution to other countries of the Middle East, Tehran is looking to support other groups as a means of gaining influence whilst also neutralising Saudi influence. In addition, the rhetoric coming out of Iran has been characterised by Third Worldist elements. The Iranian government says it wants to defend all the underprivileged in order to go beyond religious differences and to widen its audience. This is linked to its strong condemnation of U.S. imperialism. As such, according to the researcher Masri Feki, Iranian discourse is often contradicted by the facts and its state strategy takes priority over transnational communitarianism.

By supporting a state controlled by the Houthis, Iran can be assured of an ally in a region largely dominated by hostile Sunni monarchies. Moreover, Yemen could well become a new market for Iranian entrepreneurs. This has resulted in the creation of new direct flights to Sanaa Tehran, after the taking of the capital in February 2015, as well as promises of oil supplies and the construction of a number of power plants. Yemen is rich in energy and agricultural resources, and its access to the Red Sea, through the Bab el Mandeb (Mandeb Strait), and to the Indian Ocean, makes Yemen a place of strategic importance. A power like Iran is certainly not blind to these considerations.

Even if these elements seem to make it obvious that Iran is offering help to the Houthis, both Tehran and the rebels deny any such link. In response to the criticism of Iran, Ali Khamenei[4] condemned these “unfounded accusations” and instead, criticised the Arab monarchies’ “interference”[5] in Yemen. The Supreme Leader of the Revolution has even referred to the Saudi intervention as an act of “genocide against innocent people”. Tehran, in turn, believes that Saudi Arabia is doing nothing but stir up religious tensions and is only looking to worsen the situation in order to weaken Yemen.

The Houthis equally deny any link with Iran, confirming that any such allegations are merely “propaganda” and that “no proof has emerged to this effect.” The spokesperson for the movement has confirmed that these accusations were “simply a way for the Yemeni State to take money from Saudi Arabia.”[6] Despite Iran denying any link with the rebels, it does, however, admit to offering moral support in the form of recognition of the Houthi takeover in Sana’a, thus breaking its international isolation following what the International Community perceived as a coup d’état.

As a key player in the Yemen crisis, Saudi Arabia seems to have the most vested interest as far as direct intervention in the ongoing conflict is concerned. Indeed, by getting involved in Yemeni business, Saudi Arabia hopes to find a solution to the internal tensions threatening its stability. The Saudi regime has expressed concern that all of its borders are under threat, and wants to prevent the Houthi rebellion from becoming a source of inspiration for its own Shiite minority, which would pose a major threat to the current Royal family.

Furthermore, there is still ongoing rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, both of which aspire to take the lead in the Islamic world, by presenting themselves as defenders of Islam and Muslims. At the risk of allowing Iran to steal the limelight, Saudi Arabia has always sought to play an important role in the Middle East[7]. The fight against ‘Persian expansion’ was one of the arguments put forward by the pro-Hadi coalition, which consequently has every reason to hope that Iran would become involved in the Yemeni conflict, as this would partly justify intervening themselves.

In the end, Riyadh would benefit from the division in Yemen. This would explain its systematic support for dissident movements such as the Houthi insurgency when it was in conflict with President Saleh’s central government and the Southern Yemen Separatist Movement (or South Yemen Movement). According to the researcher Sonia Bouchet, Saudi Arabia would not hesitate to “deliver the final blow to Yemen […] in steering it towards secession, with a view to gaining a direct opening […] into the Indian Ocean”[8], which would help its economic trade. But in the end, if Yemen were to fall, Saudi Arabia would hope to gain access to the region of Hadramout, which is probably the most fertile region in the Arabian Peninsula.

In conclusion, the ongoing war in Yemen is akin to a sort of cold war. However, it seems that, despite various statements made by the actors involved, Iran is offering logistical support to the Houthi forces on the one hand, and on the other hand, Saudi Arabia not only is implicitly fighting against Iran, through its opposition to the Houthi rebels, but that it is interested in seeing its rival implicated. Under the guise of ideological rhetoric, the two countries are supporting the communities that represent their own strategic interests. The power struggle unfolding in Yemen is a considerable one. The two states are playing on religion to strengthen their hold on the south of the Peninsula. However, as I said, the Houthis have their own demands, which go much further than a religious war.

If it becomes clear that the involvement of both Saudi Arabia and Iran are stirring up tensions in Yemen, would withdrawing the Arab coalition and stopping Iranian support for the Houthis make it easier to resolve the current crisis more quickly? I wouldn’t bet on it, as after all, Yemen has endemic problems that extend far beyond divided communities.

[1] These include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and Sudan.

[2] This fear was reinforced by the infiltration of Houthi fighters on Saudi territory in 2010.

[3] Masri Feki ‘L’Iran et le Moyen-Orient : Constats et enjeux’ [Conclusions and challenges], Studyrama Perspectives, Paris, 2010, p.11

[4] The Supreme Leader of the Islamic revolution – the highest-ranking political and religious leader in the country.

[5] Le Monde, “L’Iran accusé d’ingérence au Yémen” [Iran accused of interfering in Yemen], 10 April 2015.

[6] Le Monde, “Yémen : Au nord, une guerre à huis clos” [Northern Yemen: a war behind closed doors] 25 May 2012

[7] We saw these power struggles in 1979, when, in parallel with the Islamic Revolution, Saudi Arabia took part in the Afghan conflict by supporting the Islamist opposition.

[8] Bouchet, S., 2013 “Révolution yéménite : un tournant historique aux enjeux multiples” [Yemeni Revolution: an historic turning point for many issues], L’Harmattan, Paris, 2013, p.49

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