Iran’s Intervention in Yemen: Causes and Prospects
The failure of the revolution in Bahrain, and Syria turning into the centre for regional conflict has motivated Iran to seek further expansion in the regional conflict ground.
Yemen turned from a ground for regional dispute to a battleground for a regional war with local arms.
If the war ends in a political solution, that grants the Houthi group to remain in power, then the Iranian influence will remain as it is and perhaps increase.
Any political authority that will be established after the war will have allegiances across national borders.
Since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution (1979), Iran has sought to create a distinct regional presence for itself from the neighbouring countries, that will allow it to lead the Arab and Islamic world, filling in the gap in that role since the defeat in 1967.
To achieve this goal, Iran has relied in its foreign policy on a number of approaches, such as: exporting the “Islamic Revolution” slogans against the United States and Israel and supporting the Palestinian cause, which appeals to the sentiments of Arabs and Muslims, as well as supporting and mobilizing “Shiite Groups” in Arab countries, despite some differences in their religious beliefs and presenting itself as their regional guarantor. This has allowed Iran to place some pressure on Arab governments and impose their strategic interests, as these groups have managed to enhance Iran’s influence inside their countries.
In parallel to supporting Arab Shiite groups under Sunni regimes, Iran has invested in the political crisis and changes that a number of Arab countries are going through, which made it a real political and security threat to a number of Arab countries, especially in the Arabian Gulf, and particularly, Saudi Arabia. And as the rivalry heightened between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran sought a more effective strategy and began searching for new areas to influence, even outside of the Shiite groups in the area. This is where Iran’s interference in Yemen began. Iran provided support for religious leaders within the Zaidi sect, which had adopted slogans of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. And so Iran succeeded in investing in this politically, and contesting Saudi Arabia in their influence areas, as Yemen is considered to be one of Saudi’s strongest centres of influence in the region. Iran has managed to hamper Saudi’s power and influence, not only by mobilizing the Shiite groups in the country, but also by surrounding its southern boarders.
Yemen was not a priority for Iran, in terms of their immediate strategic interests. It was a secondary front, because of the geographic distance between the two, and it being outside the Shiite circle. It was not easy at all for Iran to infiltrate the Zaidi sect in Yemen, for in addition to the core religious differences between the Zaidi sect and the Jaffari sect that Iran’s government belongs to, the Zaidi sect had not experienced any political, religious or social discrimination that Iran could use to their advantage as they have done in other Arab countries. For those reasons, Iran did not attempt to make connections with the Zaidi sect directly, but started by establishing Shiite teaching circles, hosting Zaidi clerics, such as Salah bin Falta and Bader Aldin Alhouthi, who were influenced by the Islamic Revolution and returned to Yemen to establish an intellectual-religious movement which eventually developed a similar political position to Iran’s. The establishment of the “Youth Union” goes back to this period, after which they turned into “Believing Youth Forum” then to “Believing Youth Organization” and finally, in less than two decades, becoming “The Houthi Movement” led by Hussain Badr Aldin Alhouthi, who adopted the Islamic Revolution slogans and political course. This stage, which extended to the end of the second millennium, resulted in Iran strengthening its relationship with the Houthi group, offering them scholarships and hosting Houthi religious leaders.
Ali Abdulla Saleh’s weak regime, the central government’s failure to control Yemeni cities, and the imbalance in the distribution of wealth, resulted in creating a sense of injustice in the Houthi group, which Saleh waged six war against (2004-2009). All of these factors and the rise of the Houthis, created a suitable environment for Iran to interfere in Yemen and provide international support to the Houthis. The Saudi government’s participation in the sixth war against the Houthis, also contributed to driving Iran to embrace this rising, armed, military movement, which had political ambitions, and even though they did not belong to the Iranian Shiite sect, Iran still could invest in them to combat the Saudi Wahhabi tide.
The changes that the Arab countries faced, post the Arab Spring revolutions, especially countries like Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, contributed to turning these countries into centres for regional dispute, mostly dominated by Saudi-Iranian rivalry. For instance, in Yemen, the revolution ended in a settlement through the “Gulf Deal”, imposed by GCC countries, and led by Saudi Arabia, which facilitated the political settlement that preserved Ali Abdulla Saleh’s regime, and maintained the conflict causes that will lead eventually to the situation exploding and spinning completely out of control. The regional powers, Iran on top of them, used these circumstances to interfere further in Yemen. And we could say that the failure of the revolution in Bahrain, and Syria turning into a centre for regional conflict, has motivated Iran to seek further expansion in the regional conflict ground and transfer a part of their battles to new fronts, through which they could pressure their opponents and lessen the pressure on themselves in Syria. So they turned to Yemen, which had a weak transitional government, with no sovereign, national command, by intensifying their political, media and military support to the Houthi group as a political and military power that can rise to the political scene in Yemen and support Iran’s policy and positions. However, this rising power has quickly surprised Iran itself, with an unexpected political and military escalation that ended in a coup on the transitional government, occupying the capital Sanaa and assuming control of the Yemeni government institutions.
Iran seemed to have viewed the Houthi group’s command, as a political power which has sectarian similarities to it and adopts the same political slogans, as a strategic victory that will allow it to benefit from another ground for influence where they could invest in politically or have negotiations over, especially following the ongoing attrition in Syria. Iran has strengthened its presence in the political scene by supporting the Houthi group militarily and diplomatically, this time openly, to the extent of signing economic cooperation agreements that would only occur between a country and another and not a country and a group. These agreements are considered a political recognition of the Houthi group’s authority and rule in Yemen. On top of that, they operated trips through Iran Airways to Sanaa and provided media platforms for the group and its supporters and devoted media campaigns to support the Houthi group.
When the military operation of the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, “Operation Decisive Storm”, began on the 26th of last March, Yemen turned from a ground for regional dispute to a battleground for a regional war with local arms. Thus, Iran has benefited from a new centre for regional conflict and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, by presenting itself as a regional guarantor to protect Alhouthi group and represent their interests. In the first few months of the war in Yemen, Iran highlighted their role as such, and devoted their media discourse and official statements to portraying the war in Yemen as a war of Sunni Arab states against a Shiite Yemeni minority, ignoring the internal political dimensions that the war has produced. Iran has also attempted to break the siege that Saudi imposed on Yemen by sending Iranian Aid Ships. However, the Iranian-American Nuclear Deal has impacted the way Iran managed the war in Yemen, and the Deal’s prominence cast its shadow over the support given to the Houthi group, causing a shift towards calling for a political solution in Yemen and taking part in the diplomatic efforts towards ending the war in Yemen.
A country like Yemen, that has turned into an open war ground for local and regional parties, will not see the end of the manner and nature of the regional interference any time soon, on the contrary, the situation might look the same or worsen in the future, as this “regional interference” is subject to many internal and external factors, crossing interests and a lot of complicated national issues. The future of the Iranian interference in Yemen depends primarily on how the current war is concluded. If the war ends in the defeat and elimination of the Houthi group, the Iranian influence might shrink, but it will not prevent the recurrence of violence in later stages. And if the war ends in a political solution, that grants the Houthi group to remain in power, then the Iranian influence will remain as it is and perhaps increase. In both cases, the political changes in Iran following the Nuclear deal, and perhaps using its frozen assets, will play a major role in their decision to continue interfering and supporting their local agents. The increase in Iranian influence will also be subject to the political directions within Alhouthi group, where it seems that some of their leaders are opposing relations with Iran, and in addition to that the establishment of a powerful political authority in Yemen might result in stopping regional interference.
In a typical chaotic situation, such as the one in Yemen, where local and regional parties are seeking to end the war according to their political assumptions, any political authority that will be established after the war will have allegiances across national borders, in addition to the activity of Jihadist organization, which found the chaos of the war in Yemen a suitable platform to expand and grow. Therefore, it is difficult under these subjective conditions, producing a country with no national sovereignty, to predict the end of the forms of regional interferences, including the Iranian one.