Arab World: Taking note of Yemen

The US is waking up to Iran’s support for Shi’ite rebels and its attempts to gain influence through proxy warfare.

HOUTHI SHI’ITE rebels in Yemen 370 (photo credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
HOUTHI SHI’ITE rebels in Yemen 370
(photo credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
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 successors.
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.
In an 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.
More broadly, 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.”
Asked whether 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.
Feierstein’s interview 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.
Feierstein in 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 seen.
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 supplies.
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 vacuum.
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 governates.
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 clarity.
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 them.
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.