Iran May Get the Last Laugh in Yemen – US News
I think the Iranians are laughing,” Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group told The Christian Science Monitor in 2009 when asked about claims of Iran’s involvement with the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Although nearly six years have passed since this interview, it is worth remembering these words now that Saudi Arabia has mobilized a pan-Arab coalition to crush the Houthis, while Iran has reportedly pledged the Houthis greater support. In order to make the coalition bleed in this new front of the regional Iran-Saudi “cold war,” Tehran has to do very little; the coalition could end up doing most of the work itself if it is not careful.
Iran does not have to win by having Yemen break apart or by having the Houthis seize power as a minority Shiite government ruling a Sunni Arab majority. Tehran might like these outcomes despite how disastrous they would be for Yemen, not to mention the Houthis themselves. However, for Iran to hurt the coalition without directly fighting them, it just has to watch as the Arab states pour enough blood and treasure into Yemen that anti-Houthi sentiment fractures over time in response to the presence of foreign occupiers. Although the Houthis are disliked for being upstart northerners invading the whole of the country, an alliance built on hate is a fragile one, especially if the Houthis are pushed back but the occupying powers stay on.
Advisers, “volunteers” recruited outside of Iran and arms shipments – either directly or by deniable third parties – are not going to be difficult for Iran to keep sending into Yemen. Whatever the full extent of Iran’s support to the Houthis is, the point is that even if Iran has been supplying as much money and weapons as the Yemeni government claims, Iran does not have to ramp up this support very much to hurt the coalition. The coalitions’ Yemeni partners, and its plans to send ground troops in, can do that all by themselves.
In 2009, the Saudis launched major operations in Yemen that failed to have a decisive effect against the Houthis. Around that time, the U.S. also stepped up its material support for the Yemeni government, ostensibly to counter al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Neither of these moves, though, stopped the Houthis from seizing the capital, Sanaa, earlier this year. The central government’s performance has been so poor that the Houthis have had little need for Iranian arms. There is plenty of allegedly missing and discarded equipment to be had, and the Red Sea provides easy access to black market suppliers.
The biggest challenge to the pan-Arab intervention is that the Houthis are not the only insurgent group in Yemen. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and its local allies control a large part of what was once the separate country of South Yemen and some smaller tracts of land bordering Houthi territory. The Southern Movement of Sunni secessionists, whose beginning can be traced back to a 1994 civil war, still exists in western Yemen and around the major port of Aden. These groups will resent any sustained foreign presence on the ground.
Tehran may hope groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State group will go after any foreign occupiers – or better yet, attack Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan themselves. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula seeks to present itself as a national liberator contesting both the Safavids (Iran) and the West, which here includes the Persian Gulf states and Egypt. Saudi Arabia in particular is at risk from a failed campaign against the Houthis because it shares a long border with Yemen and is home to a great many ethnic Yemenis used to crossing that border. Likewise, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula would like nothing more than to return to Saudi Arabia, after it failed to spark an all-out war there several years ago.
It would be tragic if the pan-Arab intervention in Yemen helped that scenario come closer to reality, in part because there are no neat Sunni-Shiite divisions in Yemen like the ones Tehran or Riyadh propagandize about. Even the Salehs and Houthis, who fought one another from 2004 to 2014 (and feuded for years beforehand), are reconciling. Territory, patronage and simple revenge are just as, if not more, powerful motivators when it comes to resisting any central authority looking to dominate Yemeni communities than presumed religious differences are.
Iran wins by being able to point to the devastation of Yemen in the course of a poorly planned and brutal Saudi-led intervention. It will say of Yemen what the critics of Iran’s operations to help liberate Iraq from the Islamic State group now say: This is the price of your “freedom,” at the hands of your so-called “liberators,” a mound of rubble. It will be hard for the coalition to deny their culpability.