Report: Saudi-Iranian 'Cold War' in Yemen

February 23, 2015

Regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia has aggravated unrest in Yemen, according to a new publication by Peter Salisbury from the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of using the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite group based in northern Yemen, as a proxy to further Iranian interests. Although Yemen's conflict is driven mostly by local causes, the "perceived, and often exaggerated, roles of external players continue to affect the calculations of the Yemeni players and of different regional actors." The following are excerpts from the full report.

Whatever the eventual outcome of the ongoing international negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear programme, tensions regarding Iran’s role in the region go far beyond the non-proliferation agenda of the international community. The competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence is exacerbating a number of existing disputes in the region, where the two powers are backing different sides.
Among the areas where Iran’s interests appear to collide with those of Saudi Arabia is Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, which borders the Kingdom and occupies much of the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen’s travails during and since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 have often been overlooked by the Western media. Interest in the country has largely been limited to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yet the most important development in Yemen since 2011 has been the rise and expansion of a group commonly known as the Houthis. As of early 2015, this military and political movement effectively controlled the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, having pressured the country’s transitional president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a key US ally in the war against Al-Qaeda, into submitting his resignation.
This paper seeks to shed more light on the Houthis’ rise, and on how Yemen fits into wider regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It argues that primary drivers of tension and conflict are local, but the perceived (and often exaggerated) roles of external players continue to affect the calculations of the Yemeni players and of different regional actors.

Founded as a revivalist movement for the Zaydi form of Shia Islam that is largely unique to northern Yemen, the Houthis have transformed themselves over the past decade into a formidable militia. According to diplomats in Riyadh, Washington and London, the group is backed by Tehran, as part of Iran’s efforts to expand its network of proxies across the region – a line largely taken at face value by Western and regional media. The concerns of external actors go beyond regional power dynamics, with Riyadh nervous – as is Cairo – about the effect that a Houthi takeover of the west coast of Yemen would have on the Bab al Mandeb strait, which is a conduit for around 5 per cent of all world oil trade. The US administration, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with maintaining a regime in Sana’a that is both able and willing to cooperate with ongoing efforts to weaken and ultimately destroy AQAP, which Washington views as being among Al-Qaeda’s deadliest ‘franchises’. (In January 2015, notably, AQAP claimed responsibility for the violent attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.)

Yemeni and Western officials believe that Iran’s ties with anti-establishment groups in Yemen go beyond the Houthis, repeatedly claiming that Tehran has close ties with leading members of Al Hirak al-Janoubi, or the Southern Movement, a coalition of secessionist groups that want to split Yemen down pre-unification lines. Regional security officials have similarly worried about the impact that southern secession would have on maritime security in the Indian Ocean, and what increased Iranian influence in southern Yemen would mean for a stretch of water that is crucial to Gulf trade. None the less, to characterize either group as a true ‘proxy’ of Iran that shares Tehran’s wider goals is to oversimplify the relationships involved – and overstate the degree to which such claims can be substantiated.

The bigger issue for Saudi Arabia and the United States in the short and medium term will be how to achieve a working relationship with a key power broker in a strategically important country that is unlikely to feel the need to serve their interests in the way that past regimes in Sana’a have – but which will require the financial backing of its much wealthier neighbours, above all Riyadh, to prevent its economic collapse, leveraging fears of an influx of economic migrants into the Gulf states.

Claims of Iranian involvement

Western and Yemeni officials have long accused Iran of backing the Houthis. An article in the Financial Times in February 2014 quoted a Yemeni official as claiming that Iran and its Lebanese proxies provided direct financial and logistical support, as well as military advisers, to the Houthis, a view that, according to the newspaper, was supported by US officials. In January 2013 the New York Times reported on a briefing given to one of its reporters by US officials, who cited the Yemeni authorities, that an arms shipment seized by Yemeni security forces off the country’s south coast had originated from Iran. The article stated that the officials cited believed that the shipment of ‘contraband’ was intended for insurgents within Yemen, although they declined to provide fuller details. Despite repeated requests from local and international journalists, neither Sana’a nor Washington further corroborated these claims.

A large question mark remains over the extent to which Tehran or Hezbollah have funded or armed the group, which relies on local support and taxation in order to remain sustainable. In conversation with the author of this paper, a Sana’a-based journalist and analyst, many diplomats and officials have given a more nuanced view of the group, conceding that external support has been centred more closely on internal capacity building – which is more valuable, in the view of many analysts, than simple cash payments. One Sana’a-based analyst points to the south, where Hirak has failed to achieve any kind of leadership structure or internal cohesion, and where alleged Iranian support has largely been limited to funding. The Houthis are notable in Yemen for cohesive internal management of security and administration, which, in the view of another analyst, ‘can only’ have come about through some form of external support.

This marks a change in tone from 2010, when diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks pointed to scepticism among US officials in Sana’a that the Houthis were heavily backed by Tehran and Hezbollah, or even that they were part of a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. ‘We are fighting on behalf of you, the Americans, and Israel,’ the then President Saleh is reported to have told one US ambassador, of the war he oversaw with the Houthis between 2004 and 2010.

US officials were apparently more concerned that Saleh was diverting US-funded troops and equipment, meant to combat Al-Qaeda in the south of the country, to the fight against the Houthis. Of a ship that Sana’a claimed to be carrying arms from Iran bound for the Houthis, one dispatch noted: ‘sensitive reporting suggests that the ship was carrying no weapons at all’. The US government provided satellite imagery of Houthi positions during the sixth and final war in Sa’dah, but only once Saudi Arabia entered the fray.

Yemeni and Western officials have also accused Ali Salem al-Beidh, the former southern president who had backed unification but who then led the 1994 attempt at secession, of maintaining close ties with Iran. ‘Iran is training militants who are aligned with a separatist movement in southern Yemen, while Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, is providing some funding and media training to the group,’ the Wall Street Journal reported in June 2013, pointing to al-Beidh’s Hirak faction and citing Yemeni and Western officials – but again giving few substantive details.

The reality of Hirak is of course more complex than a simplified narrative of an Iranian proxy. The movement is a multi-stranded organization which many domestic and regional actors have attempted to co-opt in order to further their own causes and position themselves during Yemen’s political transition. ‘Overtures [have been] made by [former president] Saleh through his party the General People’s Congress (GPC),’ Al Jazeera reported of attempts by various groups to co-opt Hiraki factions, adding that Hirak factions had also been approached by representatives of Yemen’s then transitional president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and claiming that Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the regional governments making a play for influence in the south.

Analysts who study Hirak closely argue that there is little evidence that Iran or other external actors have provided direct military training to militant Hiraki factions, or training and support to the group’s leadership, in the way that they likely have the Houthis. Rather, assistance has been limited to funding key leaders – perhaps explaining why the Houthis have been so successful and Hirak so ineffective.

Beyond these claims, officials in Sana’a claim that the Houthis’ and al-Beidh’s television stations – Al Masira and Aden Live respectively – are both run from a Hezbollah-owned building in Beirut. (Sources at Aden Live dispute this assertion, saying that the two broadcasters’ offices are in different tower blocks several minutes’ walk from one another.) Two diplomatic sources provided the author of this paper with some anecdotal evidence pointing to open lines of communication between Tehran and the Houthis during the 2014 siege of Sana’a. According to these sources, Tehran instructed Houthi leaders to abandon plans to target foreign interests in the Yemeni capital, although this claim could not be verified at the time of writing and the author agreed not to disclose details relating to the issue in full.

A number of civil society activists who took part in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, including Houthi supporters and southern separatists, say that they were flown to Beirut by Iranian representatives during and after 2011. They compare the training they were given there to the ‘capacity building’ provided to civil society organizations by Western NGOs and government-backed schemes.

Tehran has limited itself to voicing sympathy for the Houthis, stopping short of claiming them as a proxy. In September 2014 Ali Akbar Velayati, a close associate of Ayatollah Khamenei, was reported to have said that Tehran ‘supports the Houthis in their rightful struggles’. Others have been less circumspect. Alireza Zakani, an Iranian Majlis deputy who according to regional media is close to Khamenei, made claims in the Iranian press that the Houthi takeover of Sana’a was a ‘victory for the regime in Tehran’, adding that Iran now controlled four capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana’a.

It is difficult to conceive that the group, isolated for much of its existence in the mountainous northern interior, would have been able to evolve an organized and tactically assiduous fighting force without some external support. It is less difficult to believe that it was able to arm itself, however. Yemen is awash with weapons and is a major hub for the arms trade, meaning that claims that arms are being shipped to the country become something of a moot point.

Many Yemenis highlight the sharp irony of US and Saudi claims of Iranian ‘interference’ in Yemen, in the context of the support provided by both Riyadh and Washington to the autocratic Saleh for much of the last decade of his rule, and having worked in close cooperation with his regime on counterterrorism operations from 2003 onwards. Saudi Arabia also backed Saleh’s earlier efforts to install Salafists in place of Zaydi imams in mosques in northern Yemen, as well as his fight against the Houthis – for which the US also provided some intelligence support – catalysing the group’s rhetoric against foreign intervention.

Since the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, it has become increasingly clear that the Houthis’ principal sponsor was not an external actor but rather ex-president Saleh, who has encouraged his tribal and military allies to either stand aside or support the Houthi campaign, and whose loyalists make up a significant proportion of the ‘popular committees’ that have patrolled the streets of the capital since September 2014.
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