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Iran scrambling to respond to Saudi offensive in Yemen

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen puts pressure on Iran to commit significant resources to a conflict which it cannot decisively influence

Saudi Arabia’s attack on the Ansar Allah movement (widely known as the “Houthis”) has been widely perceived as a significant escalation of the Iranian-Saudi geopolitical and ideological conflict in the Middle East.

The military intervention comes on the heels of rapid advances by the Houthis, who appear poised to take over the entire country, thus overthrowing the last bastions of Saudi influence in Yemen. Combined with Saudi losses in Iraq and Syria, a big hit in Yemen is intolerable to the House of Saud.

Notwithstanding the current media hype which describes the Houthis as a “pro-Iranian” rebel movement, the relationship between the Ansar Allah movement and the Iranians is not as strong as the Saudis and their allies pretend.

Yet the military strikes may have the unintended consequence of drawing the Houthis closer to Iran. For their part, the Iranians will feel compelled to respond to what they perceive as Saudi aggression in Yemen. There is no doubt that a new front has formed in the Iranian-Saudi geopolitical conflict.

Iran will intensify its involvement in Yemen reluctantly, and likely in the full knowledge of the wide range of risks and unintended consequences attendant to the complex civil war in that impoverished country.

In addition to Saudi Arabia and most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Iran faces a broader Sunni opposition in Yemen, as evidenced by strong Egyptian backing for the Saudi campaign, along with supportive public statements by the non-Arab powers, Turkey and Pakistan.

Iran & the Houthis: natural allies?

Yemen’s intensifying civil war is increasingly viewed through the reductive prism of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, in particular the sectarian dimension of that conflict. The Houthis are Zaidi Shiites, and thus, the argument goes natural allies of Shiite powerhouse Iran.

In reality, Iran was slow to respond to the eruption of violence in Yemen’s north, as the Ansar Allah movement launched a low level insurgency to violently protest against years of frustration and neglect.

Iran’s reticence to exploit a conflict in Saudi Arabia’s backyard can be explained by two overriding factors. First and foremost, Yemen has not been a top priority in Iran’s regional foreign policy. Second, the Iranians lacked sufficient familiarity and depth of knowledge about the Yemeni Zaidis in general, and the Houthis in particular.

Historically, Yemen’s Zaidi Shiite community has been proudly independent (as evidenced by the Imamate ruling system) and crucially not integrated with the much larger Twelver Shiite communities across the Middle East. Whereas Twelver Shiites across the Arab Middle East look toward Iran for religious, spiritual and political direction, the Yemeni Zaidis adopted a much more parochial and isolationist outlook.    

At heart there is a significant religious divide, inasmuch as the Zaidis are strictly speaking closer to the Sunnis (in terms of the core content of their religious beliefs) than to the Twelver Shiites. This religious difference has profound manifestations in so far as the Zaidis tend to shun the big communal and identity-rich events of Shiite Islam, in particular the elaborate ceremonies of Ashura which marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

The religious divide means that the Zaidis have tended to shun the major Shiite seminaries of Qom, Esfahan and Mashhad in Iran, thus depriving the Iranians from gaining influence over religiously-mined Zaidi youth. In summary, historically there has been little contact between Iranian institutions and Yemen’s Zaidi community.

This knowledge and familiarity deficit has contributed to the Iranian outlook on Yemen, which relegates the country to secondary importance by comparison to the GCC countries. This outlook contributed to Iran’s slow response to Yemen’s insidious disintegration, as support and outreach to the Houthis did not occur until 2008-2009, a full five years after the beginning of the insurgency in the Houthi’s Saada heartland.  

Iran in Yemen

The intensification of the Houthi rebellion, coupled with wider instability in Yemen, in particular the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, produced a shift in the political-ideological outlook of the Ansar Allah movement.

Portraits of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Seyed Hassan Nasrallah began to adorn Houthi camps and rallies as the movement adopted Iranian-style political slogans and imagery. Despite their profound religious difference with the dominant Twelver Shiites, at political and strategic levels the Houthis had begun to identify with the Iran-led “resistance” axis. 

This new political consciousness coincided with greater Iranian interest in Yemeni affairs, in particular following the political instability of 2011 which ousted long-time leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Tapping into Iranian strategic thought and resources, the Houthis were able to brilliantly manoeuvre across Yemen’s intensifying turmoil, and win new allies and supporters in the process. In this respect the emergence of the Ansar Allah movement as the dominant political faction in Yemen is clearly a success for Iranian foreign policy.

Despite this apparent success the Iranian foreign policy establishment is loath to get sucked into Yemen’s wars, knowing full well the long-term costs associated with such a fraught venture. This is one reason perhaps why Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, condemned the Saudi military intervention in the mildest terms possible.  

By stark contrast the media outlets associated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in particular the Fars News Agency, have attacked Saudi actions in vitriolic terms and produced mountains of news and analysis in support of an Iranian push back against the House of Saud.  

This suggests division in Tehran which in the short term may act as a break on greater Iranian involvement in Yemen. But in the long-term it is broader strategic realities that may constrain Iran’s approach toward Yemen.

The broader Sunni alignment on Yemen (as evidenced by strong posturing by Turkey and Pakistan) is a clear signal to Tehran that it is beginning to over-reach in the region. If Iran fails to heed these concerns it risks provoking a much larger Sunni backlash.

- Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics. He is the director of the research group Dysart Consulting.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.          

Photo: The Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement has adopted Iranian-style political slogans and imagery (AFP)