In a notable shift in the US public stance, Washington’s Ambassador to Yemen
Gerald Feierstein this week accused Iran of supporting Shi’ite Houthi rebels in
north Yemen and separatist elements in the south of the country. Both Israel and
Saudi Arabia have long maintained that north Yemen constitutes an additional
front in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s region-wide attempt to build regional
influence through aiding proxy forces. Until now the US had remained
agnostic on this point.
The Houthi insurgency has been under way in north
Yemen since 2004. The Houthi clan, based in the Saada province of north
Yemen, are Zaidis, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The rebels are Islamist. Their
stated aim is the establishment of an “Imamate” in Yemen, to replace what they
regard as the illegitimate regime of of president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his
They number tens of thousands of fighters, and in 2009 fought
a bloody and inconclusive series of battles with Saudi forces who sought and
failed to destroy the insurgency.
US officials until now had been wont to
say that while it was theoretically possible that Tehran might support the Shia
Houthi insurgents battling the Sana’a government, no actual evidence had emerged
to establish that this was the case. They are not saying this
anymore. What has shifted?
First of all, it is worth noting that
Feierstein’s public remarks this week are not the first indication of a changing
American view with regard to Iranian support for the Houthis. On March 15, The
New York Times
quoted an un-named senior US official (probably Feierstein
himself) on this matter.
The nameless official specifically accused the
Iranians of dispatching a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps to aid
the Houthis. This force, according to the official, was using small boats to
smuggle assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to the rebels.
interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat
this week, Ambassador
Feierstein broadened and clarified the US position. He asserted that Washington
possesses “evidence that the Iranians provide military assistance and training”
both to the Shia Houthi rebels in the north and to a separatist insurgency in
the south of the country. The Iranians, Feierstein suggested, seek to prevent an
orderly transition of power following Saleh’s resignation.
said the US ambassador, Teheran wants to build “influence and impact on the
developments in Yemen through gaining influence internally or in the wider
region by establishing a foothold in Arabia, a matter that is normally seen as a
security threat to Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.”
the Iranians provide this support to the Yemeni insurgencies directly or via
proxies, Feierstein replied that “available evidence” confirmed that both
Hezbollah and Hamas support the Iranian “role and effort.” He particularly noted
the presence of southern Yemenis in Beirut who act as a conduit for Iranian
support to the separatist insurgency in the south.
was significant on a number of levels. Firstly, US ambassadors do not simply
take it upon themselves to suddenly announce to the media a significant shift in
the American understanding of events. The increasingly public US acknowledgement
of the Iranian- Saudi cold war in the region, and more broadly of Iranian
attempts to build political influence through the activation of proxies, is part
of the more generally hardening US stance toward Iran.
It represents a
growing awareness on the part of the US administration that its allies in this
region – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates – were not simply engaging
in paranoid fantasy when they sought to warn US emissaries of the dangers of
Iranian political and proxy warfare to the regional order.
public this week sounded like the Saudi and Israeli officials whose private
talks with their US counterparts were revealed by Wikileaks. The
awareness of and concern at Iran’s adroit use of proxy forces to stir the
regional cauldron and build power and influence was the point of commonality.
Whether this growing awareness will produce a corresponding shift in the
administration’s currently somewhat rudderless regional policy remains to be
Secondly, the remarks reflect real and justified US worry regarding
the chaotic situation in Yemen. Even prior to the political unrest of 2011, the
country was reeling under the impact of three separate insurgent movements (the
Houthis, the southern separatists and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP).
In addition, Yemen faced a serious water crisis, growing lawlessness, tribal
defiance of the central authorities outside of Sana’a and dwindling oil
This situation has now been vastly complicated by Saleh’s
departure and moves toward political reform. In Yemen, as elsewhere, the
departure of the military dictator has not brought a smooth transition to a new
political order. Rather, Islamist forces have moved to exploit the
As Saleh’s forces sought to maintain control of the capital last
year, the Houthis, who professed support for the anti-government uprising, expanded their area of control from Saada to al-Jawf and parts of Hajjah
Some Yemeni officials believe that the goal of the Houthis is
to take the Midi seaport in the Hajja governate. If this fell into their hands,
it would open up the possibility of a permanent Red Sea route for the transport
of Iranian heavy weapons to the insurgents. This, in turn, would make feasible a
Houthi push toward the capital, Sana’a. It may well be that this prospect has
served to attract the attention of the US administration and induce a sudden
From an Israeli (and Saudi) point of view, the claim that no
evidence existed linking Iran to the Houthis was always a strange and tenuous
one. Indications to the contrary have been accumulating in recent years. In
October 2009, the Yemeni authorities reported that they had intercepted an
Iranian arms carrying vessel on its way to Midi. The Saudi al-Arabiya news
network noted a visit by the former South Yemeni president to Beirut, where he
petitioned Hezbollah for support for the Houthis and for South Yemeni
independence. The Houthis, meanwhile, claim that Saudi Arabia is itself arming
Salafi Islamist elements in north Yemen as a means of pressuring
North Yemen today constitutes a largely ignored but important arena
for the wider regional cold war between Iranian- and Westernaligned blocs. This
contest has survived the Arab upheavals of 2011 and is continuing. Ambassador
Feierstein’s remarks, meanwhile, show that this reality is becoming harder to
deny. Even for those who in the past have found denial of this sort to be a
preferred approach to regional policy.