The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has been roiling the peace in the Middle East. The latest stage of this ‘duel’ is Yemen. Already the poorest country in the Middle East, wracked by soaring unemployment, dwindling oil and water reserves and recent struggle for power among various Yemeni factions and personalities, now Yemen is being torn apart by this proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. Unfortunately, the country that was called by the Romans as “Arabia Felix” or Happy Arabia, because of its lush, rain-fed mountain scenery is now the battleground of a bloody war.
The decision by the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to order airstrikes against Houthi rebels is being seen as the most important foreign policy decision undertaken by the House of Saud since the Arab Spring swept across the Arab world four years ago. The strikes in the Saudi-led campaign have turned Yemen into a violent cauldron of the interests of others, especially Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states and Iran.
After ousting the legitimate President of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels took over the capital and other major cities. The Houthis’ rapid rise and increase in their control over major Yemeni regions prompted Saudi air strikes against multiple military and civilian targets. Saudis believe that the Houthis, most of whom are Shiites, are Iranian “proxies” in this strategically important country. Iran, while maintaining limited leverage over the Houthis, has done practically nothing to disabuse the Saudis of this notion. The Houthis are not a strategic ally to Iran which sees them as a useful counter to its chief regional rival i.e. Saudi Arabia.
Although the US has extended military support to the Saudi campaign against the Houthis, and it may serve to reassure a key Arab ally wary of the Iran Nuclear Deal, at the end of the day, neither of the two sides in the conflict will emerge as a clear winner. There are all possibilities that Saudi Arabia will not be able to impose its will on Yemen; and Iran could also not greatly expand its influence on the Arabian Peninsula. The US will have to contend with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as it gobbles up more Yemeni territory.
Sans a wise political solution, the ragtag Yemen will further descent into chaos and is likely to slide into further instability with grave consequences for all involved.
Saudi Arabia is wary of the nuclear deal that was recently concluded between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) as it will usher in détente between Washington and Tehran and will invariably boost Iran’s power — a scenario that is never acceptable to the Saudis. Iran is indubitably a predominant regional power and is now engaged in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Tehran city representative in the Iranian parliament, Ali Reza Zakani, has rightly pointed out that “with the fall of Yemen’s capital Sanaa under the control of Shiite Houthi militia, Iran now rules in four Arab capitals”. He was referring to Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and now Sanaa. It is more likely than not that Iran would exploit future instability in other Arab countries, especially if it undermines Saudi authority.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia views the fast-paced ascent of the Houthi rebels as Iran’s next step in its regional agenda. The Houthis had been actually fighting against Yemen’s central authority long before Iran decided to jump into the fray. Although the Houthis come from the far north of Yemen and they have little popular support in most of the rest of the country, yet they — and Yemen, in general — have been peripheral concerns for Iran. And, when the Saudis perceive the Houthis as Iranian pawns, Iran finds an opportunity to exploit Saudi fears to further its interests in the region.
The Saudis may fear Iranian ambitions in the Middle East but Iranians strongly believe that Saudi Arabia is fuelling efforts to undermine the Islamic Republic and its allies. This fear underlies Iranian expansion throughout the Arab world. While Iran may be perceived as aggressive in the Arab world, Iranians themselves see their country under siege from the Sunnis and their allies in the West, particularly the United States. From Tehran’s perspective, it is no surprise that Washington has provided support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
There is hardly any likelihood of Iran provoking the US because it will only complicate the nuclear negotiations. Iran will continue interfering, though overtly, in the Yemen conflict, keeping a low-key and limited support for the Houthis. However, it will continue to view this conflict as a way to provoke and deplete Saudi Arabia.
Another important factor that is to be kept in mind while deciphering the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Yemen is that the war has become an extension of this ‘bilateral’ antagonism, yet it could also serve as a good opportunity for a détente between them. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has expressed his interest in dialing down tensions with Riyadh. And it is possible that pragmatic Saudi leaders may come around to this view.
Saudi-Iranian relations, while never great in the past three decades, have been at times manageable and superficially cordial. Instability in Yemen does not bode well for Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United States. Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) still remains a major threat to all three countries.
The most unfortunate part of this whole episode is that during the Saudi-led operation ‘Decisive Storm’ numerous grave human rights violations have been committed. The calamitous human rights situation in the war-torn Yemen has been further deteriorated by numerous attacks on relief supplies and a humanitarian aid warehouse.
Furthermore, as the Saudi-Iran proxy war has got this battleground, the Yemeni youth would have to face the horrendous repercussions of this ‘war of dominance’ between the two archrivals. Houthis, in sheer violation of international law, have already started exploiting the situation and have considerably soared the recruitment and training of children as their foot soldiers. Fred Abrahams, special adviser for Children’s Rights Division of HRW has pointed out that “the Houthis have ramped up their recruitment of children”. Commanders from the Houthis and other armed groups should stop using children or risk prosecution for war crimes.
It’s an undeniable fact that without a political solution negotiated by Washington, Tehran and Riyadh, the conflict-ravaged country of the Arabian Peninsula may turn out to be the next Syria or Libya, a perennial source of radicalism and terrorism infecting the Middle East. A nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States is an opportunity for de-escalation, rather than a zero-sum push for regional supremacy by Saudi Arabia and Iran.