Iran’s gains in Yemen are fragile but dangerous
For years Iran has been accused of supporting the Houthi insurgency in Yemen to counter Saudi Arabia, thereby becoming an accomplice to the human suffering the conflict in Yemen has brought.
Western sources say Iran has been backing the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen with advanced weaponry and military advisers to sway the regional balance of power. In a strategy that loosely mirrors its backing of Hezbollah in Syria, Iran has been supporting the Houthis with arms supplies, advisers, financial support and a small number of special forces.
While Iran rejects international accusations of its supporting the Houthis in Yemen, shipments of weapons intercepted by US, French, Australian and various Arab naval forces suggest otherwise. Regional analysts have focused on the extent of Iranian involvement in Yemen rather than the question of whether it has been happening or not.
Policing Yemen’s 2,700km coastline is no easy task and the Saudi-led coalition has struggled to seal entry points for smuggled supplies, particularly because cargoes are often transferred to small fishing boats for the final legs of their journey.
Reports suggest Iran moved beyond light and heavy weapons to offer drones, such as the Ababil, equipped with explosives to target radar and missile defence batteries. There has been speculation that Iran was instrumental in assisting Houthi rebels to enhance the capability of tactical ballistic missiles, which were seized from the national armed forces.
Yet, as ideologically motivated actors, the Houthis are miles from Iran and its partners, exemplified by Hezbollah. Note that the Houthis hail from a minority branch of Shia Islam called the Zaidis while Iran subscribes to a revolutionary (rather than the traditional) form of Twelver Shia Islam.
However, the propensity of Houthis to wage low-intensity conflict in Yemen and keep Arab Gulf rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates engaged militarily has trumped their ideological divergences from Twelver Shia Iran and overridden their credentials to deliver national peace to Yemen.
It is also true that Houthi leaders have viewed Iran with political adoration but the fact remains that the yawning gap between their fundamental religious beliefs is not easily bridged.
The Houthis have been faced with a choice of working with Iran to overcome domestic opposition in a country where almost two-thirds of Yemenis are Sunnis and where al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have been highly active.
Tragically for Yemen, there is no dominant political force. Power and authority have been cascaded across the country with various militant groups and terrorist outfits but Yemeni society seeks a future free of paramilitaries, militias and external support to groups that thrive on conflict and instability. Regional and international stakeholders want to ensure Yemen does not implode or become an ungoverned territory ruled by militants and terrorists.
The Saudi-led coalition has been left with the challenging task of preventing a collapse of the Yemeni state as it fights a two-fronted campaign against al-Qaeda and ISIS on the one hand and the Houthis on the other.
Militarily, the Houthis, al-Qaeda or ISIS cannot win in Yemen while the Saudi-led coalition is active. Politically speaking, as fringe actors, the Houthis have never represented a real contender to govern modern-day Yemen or resolve its socio-economic problems.
Note that the Mutawakkilite Kingdom (1918-62) was secular and existed in what was the shape of North Yemen before Yemen’s reunification. It is improbable that present-day Yemen could remain unified under Houthi rule, raising the prospects of prolonged civil strife and instability.
Any resolution to the strife in Yemen must look at curtailing militant forces and disarmament of militias as well as addressing water scarcity, poverty alleviation, job creation and basic health services. It is a scenario in which the Houthis have — at best — a supporting role in a broader political process rather than a leading one.
Yemen’s descent into chaos was far from spontaneous but the solution is inevitably political and must be based on the will of the Yemeni people rather than determined by its most heavily armed groups.
As it is, Iran’s approach to Yemen overlooked the needs of the Yemeni people and framed Yemen entirely in the context of its regional strategy to counter and encircle Saudi Arabia.
As such, Iran is seen by the Arab Gulf countries to have pursued a dangerous and high-stakes game that could lend support to violent extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, which the Saudi-led coalition have been robustly fighting.