Keeping Iran off balance may allow Yemen deal
The latest reports from Yemen suggest that largely local forces trained, equipped and supported by the UAE and with air cover provided by the Saudi-led coalition, have made significant progress toward Hodeidah, securing most of the airport area and advancing on the port.
The Houthis, who (like the Shiite militias in Iraq and indeed Daesh) have deployed vast quantities of improvised explosive devices and land mines to compensate for their relative weakness in numbers compared to their opponents, have now suggested that they could hand the port over to UN control, something they had previously rejected. If true, that represents progress of sorts and might encourage new UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to see if he can expand this opening to start a new political process that would produce a lasting settlement.
This would be along lines most people essentially understand, and which have been on offer since 2014.
Given that the Houthis have in the past tried to push their luck in negotiations over the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative and with the UN — as the late Ali Abdullah Saleh also did — it is unlikely that any of this will happen any time soon; though it should, not least to spare further human suffering, to which the Houthis seem indifferent.
Realistically, the Houthis have to believe that they have been defeated before they will agree to a lasting deal, and to the international policing that any deal is likely to require. One prerequisite for this is that they no longer feel that Iran has their back. Since — as the UN has again recently suggested and most studies by experts strongly support — they continue to be supplied with missile technology and perhaps other weapons systems by Iran either directly or indirectly, this does not seem to be the case at the moment.
Far more could be done to interdict these supply routes.
An interesting parallel is with Israeli actions in Syria. It is almost certain that the latest air attacks on a Hezbollah facility at Damascus airport and, most strikingly, on a staging and supply depot near Albu Kamal on the Syria-Iraq border were conducted by the Israeli Air Force in a show of power, reach and escalation designed to send an absolutely clear message to Tehran. Interestingly, Tehran has not reacted so far.
Russia is also a factor, of course. President Vladimir Putin may well be seeking to cement his position as an arbiter between Israel and Iran, encouraging the Syrian regime with Israeli acquiescence to move back into southwest Syria in order to displace Iran and Hezbollah there, perhaps in the hope that this will lead to a bigger agreement with the US on more permanent spheres of influence.
We need to contain and deter Iran until it decides that it should try living in harmony with its neighbors rather than endlessly disrupting them.
Sir John Jenkins
Tehran may also be distracted by the renewed upsurge in popular protests inside Iran against rapidly rising prices and the loss in value of the rial against the dollar, at least partly as a result of US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The first protests, at the end of last year, featured slogans critical of Iran’s involvement in conflicts outside its national territory. These have been repeated. And the merchants in Tehran’s bazaar have again gone on strike, as they did precipitating the Iranian revolution of 1978/9. The difference between then and now, of course, is that the present Iranian regime is quite prepared to shoot large numbers of its own citizens in order to prevail — a lesson in ruthlessness also learned only too well by Bashar Assad.
But a combination of concerted and coordinated pushback against Iranian forces or their allies and proxies in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, combined with calibrated economic pressure on the regime, would at least keep them off balance. This, in my view, is a necessary preliminary to reaching an enduring settlement in Yemen that guarantees the domestic security of Saudi Arabia and the states of the lower Gulf — threatened directly again this week by more missiles fired toward Riyadh — and producing an agreement over Syria that keeps the Iranians, Hezbollah and their allies away from positions where they could threaten Israel and Jordan (and therefore provoke a major and highly destructive conflict).
Iran is not suddenly going to become a good neighbor or a genuinely constructive participant in regional security structures. In the conditions of modern warfare, absolute victory and absolute defeat are almost impossible to achieve. So, as with the Houthis in Yemen but on a much larger scale, we need to contain and deter Iran until it decides that it should try living in harmony with its neighbors rather than endlessly disrupting them.
The current protests in Iran graphically reveal the underlying structural problems the country faces and the way the political ground there is shifting, with both reformers and principlists at a loss as to how to react and instead each seeking to use popular discontent to gain temporary advantage over the other. But I have no illusions that the protesters will bring the regime down. As in Syria, it is dedicated first and foremost to its own survival and commands significant resources and loyalties.
But behaviors come with a price tag and, if both victory and defeat are out of the question, then we need to make this price reflect the real cost of disruption. In Yemen, at some point this might involve quarantining the Houthis in their heartlands while reconstruction happens elsewhere — in Hodeidah, Taiz, Ibb, Aden, Marib and Mukalla, for example.
Iran might in the end quarantine itself: The supreme leader’s talk of a resistance economy suggests that is the way his thoughts are tending. That is a recipe for long-term weakness. All we need to be is patient, determined and resilient. Is that too much to ask?
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.