Minor victories for Iran in Yemen might not turn into long-term benefits.

By Adrien Morin

The assassination of Ali Abdullah Saleh by a Houthi rebel militia on 4 December 2017 has revived speculations on the evolution of the civil war in Yemen. Saleh, the former Yemeni president who was sacked in 2012, made a circumstantial alliance with his former Houthi enemies in early 2015 to retrieve power from his Saudi-backed successor, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saleh ended up on the wrong side of his political maneuver after he himself attempted a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, judging his Houthi allies as “Iranian puppets.” Saudi troops failed to exfiltrate Saleh out of the capital Sanaa, and the former president paid for his treason with his life.

Yemen’s civil war has cost the lives of approximately 10,000 people, while displacing more than three million since 2015. For most international observers, this humanitarian disaster is mostly the consequence of a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, both competing for regional influence in the Middle East.

With Saleh’s death, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), may have lost an opportunity to rally all the former Yemeni president’s loyalists to the military alliance (Operation Restoring Hope) it created in 2015 to defeat the Houthi insurgency. The conflict has cost the KSA-led coalition more than 1,200 soldiers, with Saudi troops accounting for more than a third. Riyadh also spends between five and six billion dollars every month on the civil war. However, after nearly three years of conflict and repeated airstrikes against Houthi positions in Western Yemen (taking the lives of hundreds of civilians), the internationally recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi is still entrenched in the city of Aden (Hadi himself is currently in Riyadh), leaving Sanaa and other key cities under Houthi control.

Proxy War in Yemen
Territorial control in Yemen as of 6 December 2017 – Houthi rebels represented by the ‘Revolutionary Committee’ (Source: Ali Zifan / Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, most observers agree that the Islamic Republic of Iran has invested (and lost) much less in the conflict so far. Tehran has not engaged its military in Yemen and continue to deny involvement, directing international criticisms towards Saudi Arabia for civilian casualties in the country. Iranian assistance to Houthi rebels is presumably through limited financial support and the delivery of weapon systems. On 4 November 2017, Houthi fighters fired a short-range ballistic missile at King Khaled International Airport in Saudi Arabia. According to US officials, the fragments of the “Qiam” ballistic missile, along with those of a drone and an anti-tank weapon recovered in Yemen by Saudi troops, indicate that these weapons are from Iran.

The possession of Iranian missiles and other weapon systems by Houthis is a serious threat for both the soldiers of the military coalition deployed in Yemen and Saudi national security. Mecca is only 350 miles away from the Yemeni border and could be in range of Scud missiles (Soviet-designed missiles used by Iran to develop its own missile program). Riyadh, however, is further away, standing more than 700 miles from Yemen. Houthi rebels would need to make significant technical progress in their missile systems to threaten the Saudi capital, but this possibility is not to be entirely excluded, especially if Iran steps up its logistical and technical assistance to the Shia insurgents. Under the leadership of Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, the KSA designated the November 4th missile attack on its international airport a possible act of war from Iran.

Latest developments in Yemen’s civil war seem to indicate that Tehran is increasing its pressure on Riyadh and its leverage in the region more broadly. With a severe military conflict and a disastrous humanitarian crisis at its doorstep, Saudi Arabia has much more to lose than its Iranian rival. However, is there really that much to win for Tehran?

In 2015, Iran agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) alongside the US, UK, Russia, France, China and Germany. The deal aims to reduce Iran’s uranium stockpile by 98% over 15 years and cut down the number of its centrifuges by about 75%. In return, the Islamic Republic received access to $100 billion of its financial assets frozen overseas along with the possibility to sell oil on international markets again. Despite international sanctions being lifted at a slow pace, JCPOA is giving Iran’s economy a unique opportunity to strive again, but its continuation is dependent on Tehran’s compliance and its ability to maintain improving relationships with the deal’s signatories. Iran’s involvement in Yemen is definitely not a favorable signal sent to the powers involved in JCPOA. Aside from American president Donald Trump’s anti-Iranian activism, the parties involved in the deal have mostly shown enthusiasm towards Iran’s new opening since 2015. However, knowing that the US, UK, Germany and France have all been providing various degrees of support to the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels, it is safe to assume that Iran is not helping its cause by supporting the opposite side in Yemen.

Iranian leaders have mostly been spared since the beginning of the Arab Spring and the subsequent uprising of the Islamic State, but they did not stay inactive. Tehran sent its pasdaran (the guardians of the revolution – Iran’s key armed force) across the region to fight the Islamic State and spread its influence in ungoverned areas. This strategy has worked rather well for Iran up until now. However, opening a new front in Yemen (a country where the Islamic State is active) and getting involved in an open confrontation with Saudi Arabia is adding another variable to the equation Tehran is trying to solve in the region (rallying Shia communities to its cause). In addition, in June 2017, Iran suffered its first homeland terrorist attack from the Islamic State, highlighting that the jihadi group can also be a direct threat to the Islamic Republic.

Finally, even if by supporting the Shia insurgency, Iran is forcing the KSA to invest significant resources in Yemen, it will take much more to destabilize and bankrupt the richest country in the Middle East. Riyadh managed to secure (to various degrees) the support of its international partners for its intervention in Yemen, while Tehran is fighting a war it most likely will not be able to win in the long run. The Islamic Republic has showed that it can partially undermine the KSA’s policies and influence in Yemen and the Middle East more broadly, but by doing so, Tehran is not only making new enemies in the region, but also risks further international isolation in the future.

Many think Iran is winning the proxy war in Yemen, but immediate minor victories do not necessarily translate into long-term benefits. The current situation looks more and more like there will be only losers in Yemen, the biggest of all being Yemeni civilians.

Cover Picture: a picture of the Qiam ballistic missile fired at Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels on 4 November 2017 (© DoD News/ flickr)