Iran is backing Yemen's Houthis - for now

Iran is backing Yemen's Houthis - for now
Analysis: Yemen is the latest battleground in the Saudi-Iranian shadow war, but Iran ultimately has bigger battles to fight.
3 min read
02 March, 2015
The first Mahan Air flight arrived in Sanaa on Sunday (Anadolu)

Aviation deals rarely take on geopolitical significance, but in the case of the deal signed on Saturday between the Houthi authorities in Yemen's capital Sanaa and Iran, it has done just that.

The deal allows for Iran's Mahan Air and Yemeni national carrier Yemenia to operate up to 14 flights each between the two countries every week. A Mahan Air plane was soon in Sanaa delivering medical aid on Sunday to much fanfare at Sanaa Airport.

     Yemen is lower on the Iranian priority list than it is for Saudi Arabia. Yemen is a useful card to have.

This all fits into a wider narrative – that of Iranian support for its 'proxy', the Houthis. The argument is compelling. The Houthis are a predominantly Zaydi Shia group, armed and powerful, and in control of territory immediately south of the border with Saudi Arabia. Iran, a state whose central ideology is political Shiism, would surely seize the opportunity to back the Houthis to the hilt.

They have – to an extent.

Saudi Arabia has always considered Yemen its backyard, insisting that foreign countries, including the United States, follow the Saudi lead when dealing with its troublesome neighbour. Yet regional powers seeking to destabilise Saudi Arabia look at Yemen as a staging post for any assault against the kingdom. Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser backed revolutionaries in North Yemen in the 1960s who shared his Arab nationalist ideology, hoping that Saudis would be infected by the Arab nationalist bug and enter his sphere of influence.

The argument now is that Iran, as part of the Saudi-Iranian shadow war that is ongoing in places such as Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain, is seeking to use Yemen in much the same manner as Nasser did.

Houthi control of Sanaa certainly weakens Saudi Arabia, or at least portrays it in a weak light – highlighting a Saudi inability to keep things in check in Yemen. However, it is fanciful to think that the Houthis have the desire to invade Saudi Arabia or the ability to do so. The Houthis have been unable to put down tribesmen opposed to the group in central Yemen, let alone take on the militarily-superior Saudis.

Much has been made of statements by Iranian officials, namely by the MP Ali Reza Zakani, that Iran's Islamic Revolution had spread to Yemen.

“The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone,” Zakani said back in September and once Sanaa fell under de facto Houthi control. “It will extend, following its success, into Saudi territories.”

Zakani also said that Sanaa was the fourth Arab capital to fall in line with Tehran, after Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.

Such hyperbole is likely designed for Iranian public consumption. The country has faced years of economic hardship as a result of tough international sanctions, and it is always useful to point to foreign policy successes to placate those complaining at home.

The fact of the matter is that Yemen is lower on the Iranian priority list than it is for Saudi Arabia. Yemen is a useful card to have, and Tehran will hold onto it for as long as it can. But Iran's powers-that-be will be much more willing to relinquish Yemen than they will Iraq or Lebanon. With nuclear talks ongoing with the West, Iran can add Houthi control of Sanaa to its negotiations arsenal.

Iran will show support to the Houthis, as it has done with this aviation deal and the occasional weapons shipments that turn up in Yemen, but it simply does not have the ability to step in and plug the hole left by the Saudis and their Gulf partners' economic and political isolation of Sanaa. The Saudis have kept Yemen economically afloat over the last few years, and that money is now gone. The GCC states now back anti-Houthi forces, led by President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in Aden.

Can Iran afford to pump in billions of dollars to replace them? The answer is no.