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Is Iran Winning in Yemen?

Thursday 11/April/2019 - 02:33 PM
Sada El Balad
"By Soeren Kern
The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone. It will extend، following its success، into Saudi territories." — Iranian Lawmaker Ali Reza Zakani، trusted adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader، Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"If the Shia rebels gain control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait، Iran can attain a foothold in this sensitive region giving access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal، a cause of concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia، Egypt and the Gulf states، but also for Israel and European countries along the Mediterranean." — IDF Lt.-Col. (Ret.) Michael Segall.

"Hard-line elements [in Iran] appear to see the continuation of the conflict [in Yemen] as a relatively low-cost and low-risk means of sustaining political، economic، and military pressure on the Saudis. Saudi Arabia's intervention has reportedly cost between $5 billion and $6 billion a month، while Iran's expenditures in Yemen probably total only millions a year." — Gerald M. Feierstein، Middle East Institute.

"The Houthis' intransigence confirms their loyalty to Iran's negotiating tactics. These usually begin with implicit approval of negotiating solutions، followed by complete retraction in order to force the international community to make more concessions and impose a fait accompli on the Yemeni government...." — Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yemany.

A ceasefire deal aimed at ending Yemen's civil war is collapsing amid disputes between the warring parties over how to implement the agreement. A resumption of hostilities would، according to aid groups، accelerate Yemen's descent into famine and threaten as many as 15 million people — more than half the population — with starvation.

Yemen's four-year conflict is generally viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia، which backs the internationally-recognized Yemeni government، and Iran، which backs tribal-based Shiite rebels، known as Houthis.

Iran has long denied accusations that it provides financial and military support to the Houthis، officially known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of Allah). According to the United Nations، however، Tehran has been supplying the rebels with weapons for more than a decade.

Yemen's civil war has deep roots based on religious، economic and political grievances that go back to September 1962، when a revolution replaced a 1،000-year-old absolute hereditary Shiite monarchy — the Zaidi imamate — with a secular regime، the Republic of Yemen.

The Houthi movement، formed in 1992 as a Zaidi-Shia armed opposition group to fight the pro-American government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh، has demanded regional autonomy and a greater share of power in the central government.

The Houthi insurgency began in June 2004، when the group's leader، Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi، launched an armed rebellion aimed at bringing down the Saleh government. Sectarian violence was inflamed when al-Houthi was killed by Yemeni forces in September 2004.

In November 2011، after more than three decades in power، Saleh signed a deal to transfer power to Yemeni Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The move، welcomed by many as a turning point in Yemen's history، failed to quell Houthi protests.

The conflict escalated into a full-blown civil war in September 2014، when the rebels، representing between a quarter and a third of the Yemeni population، staged a coup d'état and seized control of the capital، Sanaa. Hadi، Yemen's internationally-recognized president، subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia.

At least 7،000 Yemeni civilians have died and more than 10،000 have been injured during the last four years of conflict، according to data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). At least three million people have been displaced and around 400،000 children suffer from severe malnutrition. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described Yemen as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis."

Sometimes called the "forgotten war،" the conflict in Yemen received new scrutiny after the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul. Outrage over the murder increased pressure on Saudi Arabia to seek a truce in Yemen.

The Houthis now say that they will not withdraw from the port without guarantees that Saudi-led coalition forces will not seize control. Each side has accused the other of violating the pact. The Yemeni government believes that the Houthis are using the strategic port to smuggle in weapons from Iran to sustain their military efforts.

Iran-Saudi Rivalry
Saudi Arabia views the Houthis — who adhere to Zaidi Islam، an offshoot of Shiism — as an Iranian proxy that Tehran is using to its project political and military power in the Arabian Peninsula in an apparent quest to become the dominant force in the Middle East.

Saudi leaders have sounded the alarm about the threat posed by the so-called Shia Crescent، an ever-expanding arc of Iranian influence across the Arab world. In Iraq، for example، the government is now dominated by Shiites. In Syria، Iran (and Russia) have prevented Sunni rebels from overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad، whose Alawite sect derives from Shiism. In Lebanon، the Iran-sponsored Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah effectively runs the government.

Iran's rhetoric has only fueled those concerns. After the Houthi takeover of Saana in September 2014، for example، Iranian Lawmaker Ali Reza Zakani، a trusted adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader، Ayatollah Ali Khamenei، boasted that Sanaa had become the fourth Arab capital under Iranian control. Sanaa، he said، now joins "three Arab capitals [Beirut، Baghdad and Damascus] which have ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Iranian Islamic revolution" and "the greater jihad." He added:

"The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone. It will extend، following its success، into Saudi territories. The Yemeni-Saudi vast borders will help accelerate its reach into the depths of Saudi land."

"We need distant bases، and it may become possible one day to have bases on the shores of Yemen or Syria، or bases on islands or floating bases. Is having distant bases less than nuclear technology? I say it is worth dozens of times more."

Some analysts have argued that while the West's attention has been focused on Iran's nuclear program to the exclusion of everything else، it has ignored Tehran's efforts to solidify its control over the Middle East. Analyst David Daoud observed:

Iran has been shipping weapons to the Houthis since at least 2009، according to a 2015 report by a UN Panel of Experts. "Current military Iranian support to Houthis in Yemen is consistent with patterns of arms transfers going back to more than five years to date،" the UN report said.

The UN document، presented to the Security Council's Iran Sanctions Committee in June 2015، reported that in April 2009، an unnamed Iranian vessel unloaded crates of weapons onto Yemeni boats. The crates were then delivered in batches to the Saada Governate، where the Houthi movement is based.

"Everything is about the balance of power in the region. Iran wants a powerful Shiite presence in the region that is why it has got involved in Yemen as well."

Edited by Rehab Sayed.

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