April 22, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: What Does Iran Really Want in Yemen?

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and other senior leaders loudly condemned Riyadh’s ongoing Operation Decisive Storm against the al Houthi rebels last week, and the shape of Iran’s counter-narrative is now emerging. Today Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifannounced a peace plan calling for a ceasefire and dialogue. But what does Iran really want?

Here are five key components of Tehran’s strategy in Yemen:

  • Unravel the Sunni coalition. The participation of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan in Operation Decisive Storm—with US backing and rhetorical support from Turkey and Pakistan—was a diplomatic victory for Saudi Arabia. New lines were drawn for spheres of influence in the region, and not to Tehran‘s favor. A clearly rattled Iranian leadership has been working to undo the damage, first by helping convince Pakistan and Turkey to withhold military support to the Saudi effort. Iran will attempt to further undermine the Saudi coalition, likely poking at long-standing fractures among the Arab states.
  • Avoid direct military escalation. Even as Iran’s criticism of the Saudi-led coalition grows louder, Tehran has no desire to start a shooting war with Riyadh. Escalation could bring more direct involvement from the United States and further polarize the region against Iran. Policymakers should not make too much of last week’s deployment of an Iranian naval destroyer and support ship to the Gulf of Aden. These deployments are normally part of Iran’s participation in international counter-piracy operations. Tehran wants to deter Riyadh, but neither party is in a position to start a naval conflict over Yemen.
  • Facilitate Saudi failure. Khamenei mocked the campaign on April 9, stating the Saudi’s “have no chance” and that their noses “will be in the dirt.” He may be correct. Without accurate intelligence to support military targeting and prevent civilian casualties, Saudi airstrikes have not halted the al Houthi advance, though they have helped anti-al Houthi forces make some minimal gains in the key southern city of Aden. Despite reports that two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers were captured near Aden, the full extent of Iran’s involvement in Yemen is still unclear. Getting military aid to Yemen remains difficult, as the US Navy continues interdiction of suspected Iranian arms shipments. Barring a Saudi-led ground invasion, Tehran will obscure its covert activities and hope Riyadh shoots itself in the foot.
  • Portray Iran as the more responsible power. Iranian speeches over the past week cast the Saudis as irresponsible and Iran as the more mature and reliable regional actor. Khamenei even described the security leadership under the new Saudi king as “inexperienced youngsters” who “have come to power and replaced composure with barbarism.” Most Saudi leaders are well north of 50, but with a new 30-year-old defense minister and a sputtering military campaign, the critique resonates. Fueling doubts about Riyadh’s competence will sow discord among Saudi Arabia’s allies, even if Tehran’s self-promotion as a force for regional stability is not convincing.
  • Push for a negotiated solution. Iran recognizes Yemen may descend into an uncontrolled civil war. With Tehran already busy in Iraq and Syria, the dissolution of Yemen is not to Tehran’s advantage, no matter the damage to Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s lack of direct praise for the al Houthis following the rebel group’s coup in January has been notable. A negotiated solution remains Iran’s preferred option. Forestalling another Syria or Libya in the region may be more important to Iran than Houthi dominance in Yemen.

If forming a successful Houthi proxy was Iran’s original goal in Yemen, defeating Riyadh and its new Sunni alliance has quickly become Tehran’s top priority. Will the US put in the effort to shore up Saudi’s nascent Arab collective security force (which we have tried to make happen for decades), aid Riyadh in developing a better military strategy, and increase efforts to resist Iranian influence on the Peninsula? Or will we hedge our support and move further towards the “offshore balancing” of the major regional powers that the Arab states fear and Iran welcomes? The choices we make on Yemen, perhaps as much as in Iraq or Syria, may define the political and security landscape of the post-nuclear deal Middle East.