A boy holding a weapon stands under a Yemeni national flag as followers of the Houthi group demonstrate against an arms embargo imposed on the group by the UN Security Council, April 16, 2015.
Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters

In the past four years, Saudi Arabia has used its military to intervene in both Bahrain and Yemen. Its rationale in both cases: To protect those Arab countries from “Persian subversion.” In its discussions of foreign policy, Riyadh portrays Iran as a hegemonic power whose nefarious support of its Shia Houthi proxy precipitated a civil war in Yemen—a struggle the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, describes as being “between good and evil.”  

But Saudi Arabia is grossly exaggerating Iran’s power in Yemen to justify its own expansionist ambitions. Iran is not the cause of the civil war, nor are the Houthis its proxy. Chaos, not Iran, controls Yemen. With no vital economic or strategic interests in Yemen, Iran has, for the last few years, only opportunistically supported the Houthis to create a political sphere of influence. It did so through soft power and with minimal investment because the Houthis have been more interested in Iran than Iran has been in them. Of course, Iran, like the international community, is deeply concerned about the security of the Bab el-Mandeb strait in Yemen through which millions of dollars worth of oil flows, but it will not get militarily engaged in the lingering civil war, since Tehran correctly believes there is no military solution to the conflict. Now, no Saudi aerial bombardment of Yemen, or even boots on the ground, will defeat the Houthis or stop the expansion of Iran’s influence in Yemen. 

NOSY NEIGHBORS

Since Yemen’s creation in 1932, Saudi Arabia has considered the country its private backyard, and has continuously and consequentially intervened in its internal affairs.

Iran, however, has also been marginally interested in Yemen. For example, in 1962 when Abdullah Al-Sallal overthrew Imam Muhammad al-Badr of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom and established a Republic, the Shah of Iran provided limited financial support to the royalists. Badr, like the Houthis, belonged to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, which split from the main Shia school in the ninth century. The Zaydis ruled Yemen for centuries, but became increasingly marginalized after the civil war that lasted from 1962 to 1970. Thereafter, ironically, Iran’s Islamic Revolution made life even more difficult for the Zaydis. In response to Iran’s efforts to export the revolution, Saudi Arabia quietly encouraged and financed the spread of Wahabism, a puritanical version of Islam that some extremist violent groups have misused today to justify their actions. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Saudis spent billions of dollars to build madrassas and spread Wahabism in Yemen and elsewhere. The blatantly anti-Shia Wahabization campaign threatened the Zaydi community, but the secular Yemini government, dependent on Saudi financial largess, did nothing to help.

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi
Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi
Wikimedia

Frustrated by the marginalization of the Zaydis and the spread of Wahabism, in the 1980s, the young Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who came from a prominent religious family, decided to do something. Inspired by Iran’s Islamic Revolution, he visited Iran in 1986. It is unclear whether he met with any top Iranian leaders or received any financial or military support from Tehran. There is no evidence that he abandoned Zaydism in favor of Twelver Shiism, the state religion in Iran. Still, when Houthi returned to Yemen, he did embrace the radical elements of Iranian foreign policy, namely a rabid opposition to the United States and Israel. He began to organize the Zaydis and became a member of parliament in the 1990s. As he became increasingly disillusioned with the policies of the government, he became more outspoken and radical. Finally, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, he emerged as the leader of a new movement named after him. 

The Houthi Movement soon evolved into an insurgency and a major challenge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a secular Zaydi politician known for his Machiavellian streak. A despot, he was determined to eradicate the insurgency that was concentrated in Sa’ada in north Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia. Saleh condemned the Houthis for seeking to overthrow him and for harboring secessionist schemes; the Houthis insisted that their goal was to empower both secular and non-secular Zaydis. For almost a decade, the two sides fought ferocious wars that killed and displaced thousands of people.

In the first war, Hussein was killed by Yemeni government forces, but the movement he led thrived as his brother, Abdulamlik al-Houthi, took the helm. In 2009, the clashes between the government and the Houthis reached a climax when the Saudi Air Force joined the Yemeni government. The joint operation was unsuccessful and the Houthis temporarily captured two villages inside Saudi territory. At that time, the Saudis reportedly began to depopulate some border areas insides the kingdom’s territory where the local population had shown some sympathy toward the Zaydis.    

After that, the war dragged on. The Houthis proposed inviting Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most popular Shia leader known for his moderation, to mediate between the warring parties. But the appeal landed on deaf ears. A Saudi cleric, Mohammad Al-Arifi, dismissed Sistani as “an infidel.” Meanwhile, the Houthis became ideologically ever closer to Tehran.

To the Houthis, the Arab Spring’s arrival in Yemen in early 2011 was a gift. When the people took to the streets in support of democracy, the previously undemocratic Houthis joined them. The growing protest movement ended Saleh’s 37-year rule and his Vice-President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, won in an uncontested presidential race. The rule of the Saudi-supported Hadi was short-lived, however. Saleh and his vast network within the armed forces and intelligence agencies joined the Houthis to overthrow Hadi, who escaped to Saudi Arabia. Today, the Houthis and their partners control Sanaa and most of Yemen. The Houthis, who have committed acts of terror and intimidation, could not have made rapid advances without a tactic alliance with Saleh, their old nemesis. Saudi Arabia has zeroed in on the Houthis as if they alone are responsible for the mess.

REGIONAL RIVALS

The civil war in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, is a reflection of a fierce struggle between diverse sects and tribes, each with its own questionable past allegiances and activities. It would be disingenuous to fully blame Iran and portray Saudi Arabia as a benevolent power.

The nature and extent of Iranian involvement has been exaggerated and sometimes deliberately distorted. For example, according to a WikiLeaks document, when Saleh was briefed that year about an American drone crashing on Yemeni soil, he publicly insisted that the drone was Iranian and that it was collecting intelligence. Then in 2009, Yemen seized a small boat in its territorial waters and claimed that it contained Iranian weapons and cash destined to reach the Houthis. Iran denied the charges. 

In a secret cable to Washington, U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche wrote that “most local political analysts report that the Houthis obtained their weapons from the Yemeni black market.” He quoted a high-ranking Yemeni official saying that the Houthis “easily obtain weapons from inside Yemen, either from battlefield captures or by buying them from corrupt military commanders and soldiers....The military covers up its failures by saying the weapons come from Iran.”

Likewise, claims in 2015 that “there are 5,000 Iranian, Hezbollah, and Shi’a militia from Iraq in Yemen,” as an unidentified official from the Gulf Cooperation Council put it, are unsubstantiated. For its part, the United States admits as much. In an April statement, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the State Department, stated that “The U.S. is concerned about Iran’s relations with the Houthis and that the U.S. has evidence of all kinds of support to Houthis, but, we have no evidence that Iran controls the actions of Houthis.”

To be sure, despite the lack of conclusive evidence, it would not be far-fetched to conclude that the hardliners in Iran may have provided limited military and financial support to the Houthis, starting in 2009. Even so, these weapons have not decisively altered the balance of forces in the civil war.

Unquestionably, there are remarkable similarities in the political and ideological orientation of the Houthis and the Islamic Republic. Nor is there any doubt that Iran seeks to expand its influence in Yemen. There are reports that Iranian and Iraqi Shia seminaries have trained Zaydi clerics. In the past few months, a few Houthi delegations traveled to Tehran and signed various economic agreements with Iran. Since February 2015, there have been daily direct flights from Tehran to Sanaa. Iran has also pledged to expand the Al Hudaydah Port, which is close to the Straight of Bab-el-Mandeb that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden; to export oil to Yemen for a year, although the terms of the deal are not known; to build a new electrical power plant; and to send experts on electricity and transportation to Yemen. But they’ve been doing that for a while. In January 2015, Hadi, who now calls the Houthis “stooges of Iran,” also asked for greater cooperation from Iran to resolve regional issues and invited Iranian companies to invest in Yemen.

COSTLY CONFLICT

Because of the conflict’s complicated nature, Saudi Arabia’s military intervention is a strategic blunder that will exacerbate the war, allow terrorists in the area to expand their operations, and create a humanitarian disaster. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has already gained some territory in Yemen and is revitalized, which will complicate U.S. counterterrorism operations in the region. Putting boots on the ground, as Saudi Arabia and a few Arab countries have threatened to do, will create a quagmire from which they will not be able to easily escape.

A man looks at damage in his house caused by an air strike that hit a nearby army weapons depot in Sanaa, April 18, 2015.
A man looks at damage in his house caused by an air strike that hit a nearby army weapons depot in Sanaa, April 18, 2015.
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

It is not entirely clear why the Saudis decided to intervene in Yemen. Perhaps, the Kingdom hoped to reverse evolving strategic changes in the region that it deems antithetical to its interests. The Kingdom lost its most powerful Sunni ally in Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.  Today, Baghdad is controlled by the Shias. In Bahrain, the large Shia majority remains restive and is challenging the Saudi-backed, Sunni-controlled government there. Despite Saudi Arabia’s desire to see Assad go, he remains in power. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has become a force to be reckoned with. Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s fingerprints behind these huge changes and is, justifiably, concerned about their impact on its own considerable Shia population. Already, they have tipped the balance of power in the strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iran’s favor. So the Saudis might have decided to act preemptively in Yemen to prevent Iran from consolidating its presence in that country. Another plausible explanation is that the Saudis panicked about the possibility of a nuclear agreement with Iran and a subsequent U.S. rapprochement with Tehran. Perhaps the Kingdom hopes to turn its anti-Houthi coalition into an anti-Iran coalition.

It isn’t too late to turn things around. The war in Yemen will require a ceasefire followed by negotiations among all major Yemeni parties who come together, through popular elections, to form a broad-based government, which is very likely to include the Houthis. The problem is that the Saudis might reject this partly because they do not wish to see an independent and representative government that has the slightest tendency toward  populism or elections. But facts on the ground will compel the Saudis to readjust their policy.

As civilian causalities increase in Yemen, the United States will face a difficult choice. On one hand, Washington appears to know that aerial bombardment, or sending troops, will not result in the kind of changes the Saudis are seeking in Yemen. On the other hand, Washington’s main preoccupation in Yemen is its counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has benefited enormously from Saudi military operations. At the same time, the Houthis have proven to be the most ferocious and effective enemy of the terrorist group and have shown willingness to cooperate with the United States in its counterterrorism operations. 

As for Iran, it must continue to refrain from getting militarily entangled in Yemen, where it has no national interests. Nor should Tehran provide weapons to the Houthis. Iran has already overextended itself in the region. It is high time for the country to moderate its regional policies in anticipation of the signing of a final nuclear agreement with the six global powers, which will change the strategic landscape of the Middle East. Iran is a major regional power and must now act responsibly to help stabilize the region. Yemen would be a good place to start.

  • MOHSEN MILANI is the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies and Professor of Politics at the University of South Florida.
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