Iran's Game in Yemen

Why Tehran Isn't to Blame for the Civil War

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. 


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

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