Stretching My Gambes

The Houthi uprising: Iran as a smokescreen

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Saudi Arabia’s ongoing attempt to quash the Houthi rebellion on its border with North Western Yemen has been variously labelled as either a response to territorial infringements or placed in the narrative of a proxy war with Iran. However, both reasons fail to recognise the government’s domestic fears over the marginalisation of its Shi’ite population as the motivation behind their offensive.

Preserving territorial sovereignty is hardly a unique policy, there are few who would criticise the Kingdom’s decision to do so. Indeed, reinforcing the integrity of your borders is particularly pertinent when an ailing Al Qaeda have turned to Bin Laden’s ancestral home as their hosts.

The argument that Saudi’s response is an attempt to counter Iranian meddling remains unclear. While Yemen has accused Iran of arming the Houthis, no evidence has been supplied to support this claim aside from the unverified allegation a captured munitions vessel. In reality the Houthis would have little problem procuring weapons domestically.

Iran has denied this claim and launched a thinly veiled attack on Saudi involvement; Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki stated there were “certain people who add fuel to some crises.” Going on to add: “those people should be assured that the smoke and the fire they have ignited will entangle them themselves.”

However, Tehran appears increasingly interested in the Houthis’ plight. Take Monday’s comment by Ali Larijani (speaker of Iran’s Parliament): “the deplorable events in the Islamic nation of Yemen which have intensified over the past two weeks and the Saudi interference in Yemen through repeated bombings by warplanes is astonishing.” Further, the Iranian parliament have blocked a bill on tax cooperation with Sana’a in opposition to the treatment of the Houthis

It is not unfeasible that Saudi would pursue proxy conflicts to balance against Iran. The Kingdom’s regional influence has diminished following 9/11. Indeed, it is one of the contradictions of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy that while Iran was blacklisted and marginalised, Washington inadvertently improved Iran’s standing at the expense of its regional allies.

In Afghanistan, the Taleban had a perennially poor relationship with the Iranian government. The former held nothing but contempt for the latter’s Shi’ite inspired governmental structure; tensions probably reached their peak in August 1998 when the Taleban killed eleven Iranian diplomats. Animosity between the two was so strong that Iran even offered America intelligence support in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Islamic Republic never shared positive ties with Ba’thist Iraq. The antagonism initiated under the Pahlavi dynasty and Hussein’s anti-Iranian narratives was exacerbated by the expansionary tendencies of the revolutionary state, which culminated in a destructive eight year war – the longest of the 21st century.

Iran no longer suffers these tensions. The Ba’thist regime is gone and the Taleban are otherwise engaged. Iran now exerts greater influence in both countries and much to the chagrin of the Saudi’s, particularly in neighbouring Iraq.

The Saudis have responded by investing resources into countering Iranian influence in these countries, but they have most recently done so in Lebanon. Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Martyrs’ Day, Tuesday 10th November, alluded to King Abdullah’s role in establishing the Lebanese unity government.

“We take positively the Syrian-Saudi summit, and we were the first to reap its fruits. We call for a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement to establish communication between the two countries.” This call for rapprochement seems unlikely given recent posturing over Yemen.

Claims of Iranian meddling are somewhat overstated and occasionally fabricated; however Khomeini’s fingerprint is detectable in many regional disputes. This may not always be overt Iranian support but rather through the imagery of the Iranian revolution and Khomeini himself serving as a role model for the oppressed. While not attempting to perpetuate the idea of a sectarian binary or ‘Shi’ite Crescent’, this imagery can be particularly powerful for Shi’ite groups in the region.

However, as Robert Worth highlights in the New York Times, the suggestion that a link between the Houthi and Iran is due to simple sectarian proclivities remains problematic. “The notion that the Houthis are natural religious allies of Iran is misplaced; Zaydism is doctrinally closer to Sunnism than to mainstream Shiism. But a raft of misleading news reports seem to be blurring that distinction.”

Iran does not appear overtly involved at the time of writing. “There is probably next to no Iranian involvement. I have seen no evidence for it and it’s really a bit too far afield,” stated Joost Hiltermann, the deputy Middle East program director of the International Crisis Group. He added: “The Iranians are just brilliant” he adds. “They play no role whatsoever, but they get all the credit, and so they are capitalizing on it.”

If true then what motivates the Saudi offensive? The unspoken reasons are the Kingdom’s insecurities about the marginalisation and oppression of its Shi’te population, who primarily based in the oil-rich Eastern province, and movements by second generation princes to assert their suitability for succession.

The on-going competition between second generation princes is part of a broader worry over succession in the Saudi ruling elite. Khalid bin Sultan is particularly eager to establish his reputation as a strong leader to aid his push for the post of Minister of Defence, which is currently held by his struggling father, who has been recovering from illness in Morocco for over a year.

The marginalisation of the Shi’ites is well documented in September’s Human Rights Watch report. The title of which makes the situation clear: ‘Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shia Citizens.’ The report details the regular repressive measures employed by Saudi authorities: preventing religious gatherings through the closure of private prayer halls; incarcerating clerics; and routine bias in the education and judicial system.

It is the fear of the Houthis fermenting and mobilising the resentment latent in the Saudi Shi’ite population that drives the Kingdom to fortify and militarise the Yemeni border. Keen to prevent any interaction between the two communities, Prince Khaled bin Sultan the Saudi assistant defence minister, has stated that the offensive will stop once the Houthis had retreated dozen of kilometres from the border. The continued bombing this week indicates the Saudis are far from feeling secure.

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