Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

Iran’s Low Cost Gambit in Yemen

By Adam Patterson
November 18, 2015

Similar to the ongoing crises in Iraq and Syria, the conflict in Yemen has effectively devolved into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although the theater in Syria is complicated and multifaceted, the civil war in Yemen has a relative polarity. However, the seeming simplicity of the sectarian breakdown between Shi’ite and Sunni combatants belies the external pressures that influence the ongoing strife throughout Yemen.

In terms of open martial antagonism, the combatants are broadly aligned along sectarian parameters, with even the local al-Qaeda insurgents gaining a reputation for alliances of convenience with the Saudi military. The tribal-based Houthi movement, Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), has been receiving its own external assistance. The Houthi rebels, who practice the Zaidi sect of Islam (a subsection of Shi’ism that is similar to Sunnism in many respects), have received assistance from Iran’s Quds force, which has also played a major role in backing the Assad regime in Syria, a host of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This leaves a sort of Sunni-Shi’ite axis along which most of the fighting breaks down, and an ongoing catalyst for armed escalation throughout the region. In this framework, many of the ongoing tensions are defined by each party’s either covert or explicit allegiance to the power players in Tehran or Riyadh. What ensues between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a prolonged power struggle that is neither a direct engagement nor a sort of cold war, but one that rests within some tenuous middle ground of ongoing proxy war maneuvering.

Riyadh and Tehran’s geopolitical relationship is a classic example of two powers vying for whatever upper hand can be found irrespective of auxiliary factors. Questions around military escalation in foreign countries are only relevant if they are too taxing for either Saudi Arabia or Iran (damage to local civilian populations or infrastructure is a tertiary consideration at best). One of the primary factors that makes this pattern of engagement so easy for both parties is that potential allies and antagonists can be divided neatly along sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia has found it easy to ally with Sunni insurgents, while Iran has found amenable Shi’ite partisans in Hezbollah and the Syrian Alawites.

Saudi Arabia occupies a relatively privileged geographic position in the Middle East, insofar as Daesh (“Islamic State”) is much more menacing to the Syrian and Iraqi governments. There has been relatively little attack from Daesh along the Saudi border as the group seizes territory previously under regime control. Thus curtailing the group has remained a lesser priority for the House of Saud.

There has been longstanding speculation that sources within Saudi Arabia have been backing and supporting Daesh through various covert means, in part because their belligerence in Syria and Iraq has whiplashed against the Iranian-backed regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. One of the longstanding and most withering criticisms of Saudi foreign policy is that Riyadh has made a habit of exporting Wahhabism and jihadi extremism as a political weapon, which has spilled into lands as far away as Chechnya and Indonesia. This has insured the dual leverage of friendly elements (or militias) in outside states, as well as a sort of counter-pressure against potentially unfriendly governments.

Iran’s gambit in Yemen seems to represent a sort of counter to this. Yemen’s strategic value to foreign policy decision makers in Tehran lies in Iran’s ability to bring the conflict, in a very real sense, into Saudi Arabia’s backyard. They have much to gain, and very little to lose, by exacerbating the conflict that festers south of the Saudi border. The kingdom has remained wary of serious commitment of ground forces, and their airstrikes appear to be coordinated so as to in part benefit the local al-Qaeda insurgents (another instance of implicit Saudi support for militant Wahhabi proxies). However, the Houthis have been steadfast in combating the Sunni insurgents, and there appears to be no indication any sort of drawdown will be happening in the near future. This has drained Saudi defense resources, forcing them to redirect a substantive portion of their military spending and air power at a conflict whose resolution will offer them little more than a return to regional stability once suppressed. Beyond that, there are no grand tactical or political benefits, nothing enormously momentous or positive that can be feasibly carried beyond the theater in Yemen.

This represents an ideal investment for Iran in terms of undermining Saudi reach in the Middle East. At this juncture, Tehran has very little to lose by exacerbating the Yemeni conflict. Though in no way parallel phenomena, a resolute and defiant Houthi insurgency would also provide counter-pressure against the Saudis to match the Sunni insurgency that is wearing down the Tehran-backed regimes in Syria and Iraq.

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