Society & Culture

Podcast: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen

April 10, 2015
IranWire
11 min read
Podcast: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen
Podcast: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen

You’re listening to Iran’s Weekly Wire; I’m Roland Elliott Brown.

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Right now, Yemen is a war zone.

This country on the southern border of Saudi Arabia has been unstable for years. Now Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two biggest powers in the Middle East, are weighing in on opposite sides of a local power struggle.

Saudi Arabia supports Yemen’s president, Mansour Abd Rabbuh Hadi, while Iran supports an armed rebel group called the Houthis, who come from Yemen’s large, Zaidi Shiite minority.

To some outsiders, it looks like Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are willing to risk turning Yemen into a new sectarian flashpoint in the Middle East.  

This is the last thing Yemen needs and it’s the last thing the Middle East needs. Yemen’s instability has already made it a base for terrorists.

Al Qaeda in Yemen has plotted attacks on commercial aircraft, and took credit for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Just a few weeks ago, Islamic State launched its first attack in the country, bombing two mosques in the capital, Sana’a.

But neither of the big Middle Eastern powers seems concerned about those groups. At the heart of their quarrel is Iran’s relationship with the Houthis. Saudi Arabia calls them Iranian puppets, while Iran says Saudi Arabia is persecuting them.

So what kind of relationship does Iran have with the Houthis?

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To start, I asked Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute what the Houthis want.

[Alex Vatanka:] It began as a political movement seeking better rights for the Zaidi community in Yemen, and today obviously it's engaged in a fight with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has decided that the Houthi movement poses a threat to the security of Saudi Arabia, and that's where we are today.

But is that an Iranian threat? People have been asking that question ever since the Houthis managed to take over Sana’a last September. And the Houthis do sometimes sound like they’re working from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s playbook. Their slogan is “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory for Islam!”

I asked Martin Reardon of the Soufan Group, a strategic security and intelligence organization, what kind of relationship Iran has with the Houthis.

[Martin Reardon:] There is a relationship. The Houthis’ rise to power last summer and fall, Iran’s involvement in that would have been minimal. They gave support for the Houthis as a moral support. Hezbollah had been there training them, and the Qods force did bring weapons in, a limited number of weapons, over the last several years, but Iran weren’t heavily engaged there as they are through Hezbollah in Lebanon, as they are in Iraq, in Syria.

Saudi Arabia already resents Iranian competition for religious and political influence in those countries, all of which are partly Shiite. I also asked Reardon if the Houthis see themselves as Iranian puppets.

[Martin Reardon:] The Houthis are not really, I wouldn’t call them a puppet of the Iranians. They want support wherever they can get it from. They're only going to get it from the Iranians, but they're not a puppet, I don't think they're taking their instructions from Iran.

Even so, Saudi Arabia believes Iran is opening another Shiite front in Yemen, which sits along a long, porous, thousand-mile border on its south.  Here’s Saudi analyst Khaled Batarfi:

[Khaled Batarfi:] The relation is a sectarian relation between Iran and the Houthis and Hezbollah. They are supporting them because they are Shia, and they are spreading the Shia sect in Yemen, and because they want to rule Yemen according to the same Iranian system.

The sound is a little unclear there, but he’s saying Iran wants to export its style of government to Yemen. But is this really a sectarian war?  The facts don’t seem to stack up.

The Houthi sect was established in the early 1990s and it regularly fought the Yemeni government led by military strong-man President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh himself is a Zaidi Shiite who, when he was in power, used to accuse the Houthis of relying on Iranian support.  

In 2011, a popular uprising toppled Saleh’s regime, and Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi became president. Since then, ex-president Saleh has used the Houthis and loyalists in the Yemeni military, to subvert Hadi’s rule. This is more of a Yemeni “Game of Thrones” than a sectarian stand-off.   Here’s Alex Vatanka.

[Alex Vatanka:] They are an indigenous Yemeni movement, with a Yemeni agenda, with Yemeni enemies, and a potential solution to the crisis in Yemen can only be found once these conflicting Yemeni factions get around a table and talk.

Even so, there’s no doubt that Iran has been sending aid to the Houthis in the form of arms and military advisors. The question is, what does it hope to gain?  I asked Batarfi

[Khaled Batarfi:] Because Yemen is the backyard of Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunni world and it is the counterbalance in the region. So to pressure Saudi Arabia, they did what the Soviet Union has tried to do with Cuba, to get the missiles into Cuba and to threaten the United States so close.

Of course, Iran isn’t putting nuclear missiles in Yemen. Still, he sees Iran arming the Houthis to gain leverage over Saudi Arabia.

[Khaled Batarfi:] They did the same in Yemen, and they got the Scud missiles, very sophisticated missiles--for the Yemeni standard of course--to threaten Saudi Arabia so they could bring Saudi Arabia to the table in any case they want, they have the upper hand. They could tell them to higher, to lower oil prices, to lower production, for example, to get out of the Syrian conflict, to get out of Lebanon, order us around by having the Cuban-style situation in Yemen.

That Saudi fear explains why Saudi Arabia, and a coalition of its Arab allies, have launched air strikes against the Houthis since late March. But Reardon sees Iranian presence in Yemen as more of a diversion tactic than a grand strategy.

[Martin Reardon:] For the Saudis, this is serious. The Saudis are convinced the Iranians have a significant amount of influence there, and that they are putting pressure on the Saudis’ southern border. Iran is putting that pressure there, but they're not having to do a lot about it. They're causing the Saudis to react to the Houthis, and that is a concern, just because they want a stable and friendly government there, but the Iranians don't have to do a lot to cause the Saudis to react. If you look at what's happened over the last three weeks, the Saudi coalition with all the airstrikes there, the gulf countries that were doing daily strikes in Iraq and Syria have pretty much concentrated their airstrikes in Yemen now. That is keeping them off the bigger picture, which is Syria. Syria is what’s really important. They are concerned in Yemen now and not putting the focus on Syria like they should be.

This also sounds more like old-fashioned tactical maneuvering than an ideological war.  And inside Iran, there’s been a media blitz that looks a lot like a diversion from the sensitive politics surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Here’s Alex Vatanka:

[Alex Vatanka:] If you just listen to the Iranian media today, Yemen is probably the biggest issue that they are giving coverage to. It’s not the Iranian nuclear issue. Suddenly it's the Yemeni crisis and what Saudi Arabia is doing in that country.

But inside Iran, and inside Iran’s political system, there probably isn’t even a consensus about how to develop the relationship with the Houthis, or even why that relationship might be a good thing.

[Alex Vatanka:] Obviously the Iranians are in a position, and are largely interested in taking advantage of the opportunity that has geopolitically arisen for them in Yemen. The debate in Tehran, though, has to be how far do they want to get involved in Yemen, and to what end? Because if the end is just to simply irritate the Saudis, then that's something they can certainly can probably try and do in Yemen, but the question they have to ask themselves is at what cost, because president Rouhani himself, when he came to office pointed to Saudi Arabia and Iran's difficult relations with that country, as one of the key issues that needed to be addressed.

And Iran sometimes makes efforts to sound constructive about the crisis. Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif laid out his peace plan for Yemen. But Reardon is sceptical:

[Martin Reardon:] The foreign Minister’s statement just in the last few days, that hey, we need to have a ceasefire, everybody needs to come together and talk, and we need to have a collaborative government that can work with all sides, a lot of that is said for public consumption. Iran, what they want is a government in power that will be friendly to them, Iran wants the influence there if they can get it. And the only government that they’re going to have that is going to give them that access would be a Houthi government. I don’t see there being a Houthi government there, just because that is a minority, the Zaidi Shia, and then you have all those other factions there.

In theory, Iran and Saudi Arabia should both want Yemen to be stable, given their oft-asserted enmity with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has established a foothold in the country, where it calls itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Both President Hadi and the Houthis oppose Al Qaeda but the civil war is benefitting terrorist groups.  Last Thursday, Al Qaeda took the city of Al Mulkalla in the south of the country.  They also took a major seaport and airport in the area and emptied the local bank and prison.  

Meanwhile, ISIS has bombed two mosques in Sana’a.

But Saudi Arabia is clearly more worried about Iran, and Iran has little reason to care about Al Qaeda activity in Yemen, since it’s so far away.

[Martin Reardon:] It's not in their backyard. Yemen being unstable does nothing to Iran. It does a tremendous amount to Saudi Arabia. Until there's a stable government there that can go back and keep the pressure on AQAP, there's nothing to stop AQAP from coming into southern Saudi Arabia either.

And from Iran’s point of view, it has the added benefit of creating headaches for the US.

[Martin Reardon:]. The US wants a stable Middle East. Stability is good for the region, its good for the world. When you have unstable governments, ungoverned territory, that is a breeding ground for terrorist organizations. That is why AQAP can thrive there. They can plot attacks in the West, and the Gulf region, against the US.

To understand what’s going on between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, it is best to think in terms of cold, cynical, realpolitik. But Iran and Saudi Arabia don’t only lack scruples. They also lack political maturity. And a little maturity would go a long way. Here’s Alex Vatanka:

[Alex Vatanka:] Depending on what Iran and Saudi Arabia decide to do in Yemen, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia could get worse, as we are witnessing right now, or they could decide to not make it into the latest proxy battlefield between the two countries. Then Yemen could be a place where they seek to lessen tensions, which I think both Iran and Saudi Arabia would benefit from.

Given the influence they both wield in the country, they could both help end the conflict.

[Alex Vatanka:] I think the final solution to what's happening in Yemen is that Yemeni warring parties sit at the table and start talking and seeking and getting to a political resolution where everyone feels they got enough from the talking that it justifies bringing the conflict at least to a temporary end. What Iran and Saudi can do is to encourage that process. They can either encourage it, or they can create obstacles for it.

And if they choose to create obstacles, they will leave a legacy that will likely be resented inside Yemen.

[Alex Vatanka:] The question they have to ask is do they want to own that Yemeni conflict? Do they want to sustain a longer civil war in Yemen? Because Yemen has a population of 24 million people, it's the most impoverished country in the Arab world, it has many different issues that need to be resolved. This is not a small task, this is not Lebanon, this is on a huge scale, and I just wonder, if you're an Iranian strategist or a Saudi strategist, if you feel getting deeper involved a Yemeni crisis is something they want to take on now.

Iranians in particular should remember when their own country was poor, and weak. Back in the 19th century, great powers fought over and exploited Iran. As the Islamic Republic’s power rises in the Middle East, some Iranians may be asking whether that’s the kind of great power they want to be.

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That’s all for Iran’s Weekly Wire. If you want to find out more about this story, join us on Twitter or Facebook, or visit IranWire.com.

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