What threat does an Iranian-backed Yemen pose to Israel?

Expert says Jerusalem should explore cooperation with Red Sea countries to avert sea traffic risk; Alliance unlikely, says former deputy national security adviser.

Iran displays its arsenal of missiles (photo credit: Courtesy)
Iran displays its arsenal of missiles
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels’ takeover of Yemen’s capital in September has raised alarms not only among its regional Sunni rivals, such as neighboring Saudi Arabia, but also in Israel.
If the Houthis are able to solidify control over the southernmost country on the Arabian Peninsula, which lying on the Red Sea is Israel’s outlet from its southern port in Eilat, it could create a risk for Israel and other countries’ sea traffic.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti could also be affected if Yemen would become an Iranian hub. If any of these countries would cooperate with Israel to counter such a scenario still remains up in the air.
Reuters revealed details of Iranian military and financial support to the Houthis before and after their takeover of Sanaa, according to Yemeni, Western and Iranian sources.
Houthis are Shi’ites from the Zaydi branch, also known as Fivers, who believe in the first five imams after Muhammad, up until the fifth, Zayd ibn Ali. Most Shi’ites are Twelvers, including the leadership of Iran.
Riyadh has suspended aid to Yemen, angered by the Houthis’ growing power, while Iran publicly welcomed the Houthi victory.
A senior Yemeni security official said Iran had steadily supported the Houthis, who have fought the central government since 2004 from their northern stronghold of Saadah.
As attacks continue between the Houthis and their domestic Sunni opponents, it could erupt into a larger sectarian war similar to what is raging in Iraq and Syria.
It is necessary to understand that the Shi’ite-Sunni dichotomy is key to understanding what is going on in the region, not only in Yemen, Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post.
Rabi refers to Israel’s “periphery doctrine” – the forming of alliances with surrounding non-Arab states and minorities in order to overcome hostility from neighboring Arab countries – in order to emphasize that this kind of thinking should be guiding Israel’s policy in the region and when it comes to a an Iranian takeover of Yemen.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the growing enmity of the Islamist AK Party in Turkey have contributed to an altered regional strategic map for Israel today.
“The saying – the enemy of my enemy can be my best friend – is really relevant,” said Rabi.
Asked if Israel could counter an Iranian-controlled Yemen by forging alliances with eastern African countries along the Red Sea, Rabi agrees and points out that a common denominator in the region that opposes Iranian hegemony could also perhaps include some kind of understanding with Saudi Arabia.
Just as Israel has used the periphery strategy against Iran by befriending Azerbaijan, says Rabi, the Jewish state needs to look at the map and identify where its opportunities lie.
Iran sees itself as the advancing hegemon in the region, notes Rabi, adding that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard official was recently quoted as saying that the Islamic Republic of Iran now controls four Middle Eastern capitals: Sanaa, Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus.
Rabi goes on to argue that oil prices are dropping due to local developments. However, he adds that the Saudis are not responsible for lower prices, but they are not crying over it as they know that their political foes, Iran and Russia, are being hit hard by this.
Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, said “a potential takeover of this sort has highly negative ramifications for Israel, both in its own right and as part of the broader battle for influence under way in the Middle East today between Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces and Sunni forces, under the leadership of Islamic State and others.”
“The outcome of this tectonic clash will be negative for Israel, regardless of who ultimately gains the upper hand,” he said.
Israel’s interests in Yemen include the preservation of the freedom of navigation through the Red Sea and, of course, preventing the growing spread of Iranian influence throughout the region, he said.
Unfortunately, there is little Israel can do to prevent Iran’s growing influence, just as it was unable to prevent Islamic State and other Islamist groups from gaining ground in neighboring Syria, added Freilich.
“The Saudis and other moderate Arab countries, along with the primary international actors, have to be in the forefront of this issue, Israel can only watch and hope for the best, while taking defensive measures.”
Asked about any possible cooperation from other states lying on the Red Sea such as Saudi Arabia or Eritrea, Freilich responded that at most he predicts very limited cooperation, if that.
“I am not a believer in the new grand alliance between Israel and the Saudis, or the other Sunni states against Iran,” he said.
“They may hate Iran and have a common interest with us, but they won’t work with us in any significant way.”
Reuters contributed to this report.