Denying Iran’s role in Yemen muddles peace process

Denying Iran’s role in Yemen muddles peace process

The Iran Action Group, which was created by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in August, released its findings in a 45-page report last month. Amid the many issues that the paper examined, Iran’s activities in the Middle East came under intense scrutiny, including its role in arming and supporting the Houthi militia in Yemen. The report marks one of the first times in recent years that the US administration has compiled evidence pointing to the destructive role of Iran in Yemen’s economic, social, regional, and humanitarian fronts. However, despite the increasing evidence of involvement by the Iranian regime, skepticism of Iran’s support still permeates among Western policy experts. This resistance to understanding the linkages between the Houthis and Iran further muddies the waters surrounding the true nature of Yemen’s war, as well as the necessary policy solutions for peace.
Although much of Iran’s immaterial involvement with the Houthis has not been immediately apparent, the military evidence presented itself through Iran’s missile program, which it has implemented in Yemen. Both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and liberated territories in Yemen have been on the receiving end of lethal missile attacks launched by the Houthis. Evidence suggests that Iran supplied the missiles, helping to advance the Houthis’ military capabilities. Although the Saudi defense system intercepted these missiles, their frequent usage constitutes a significant threat to the Kingdom and Yemen’s residential areas. 
It is apparent that the Houthis, who were mountainous tribesmen cut off from technology, would never have been able to gain any military advancements and momentum without Iran’s help. At the end of 2017, they averaged an attack nearly every week, and they vowed to make 2018 “a year of ballistic missiles.” Details of Iran’s provision of ballistic missiles to the Houthis were further evidenced by the debris recovered from the strikes that were launched from Yemen into Riyadh. Assessments of the Qiam missile, including by the UN’s Panel of Experts, cited Iran as the origin of the Houthi missile. Furthermore, continuous illicit shipments of weapons that are intercepted have been found to originate from Iran, in apparent defiance of the UN Security Council arms embargo. 
The Houthis’ fighting capabilities were sharpened through their six wars with the Saleh government from 2004 to 2010, but their new-found military power has been built since they overthrew the internationally backed government of Yemen in 2014 and became the de facto authority in the north of the country. 
In October 2016, the Houthi militia launched a number of anti-ship cruise missiles at vessels off the coast of Yemen, attacking a UAE military vessel around the Red Sea port of Mokha and the USS Mason. By that time, it was evident that the Houthis possessed sophisticated missile capacity that was beyond their existing ability, constituting a real threat to maritime security. 

Underplaying the assistance the Houthis obtain from Iran, or alleging their complete independence from their Iranian patron, has unfortunately led to myopic policy conclusions that could not advance peace in Yemen.

Fatima Abo Alasrar

Another element of Iran’s intervention is its manipulation of the economy. While Saudi Arabia deposited $2 billion in Yemen’s Central Bank in January, as well as another $200 million to stop the devaluation of the Yemeni riyal last week, in 2017 the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force engineered a plot to print fake Yemeni bank notes, according to the US State Department report. In addition, the US Treasury designated five Iranian individuals for providing ballistic missile-related technical expertise to the Houthi militia. 
Iran’s interference in Yemen, and other countries for that matter, is conducted irrespective of the ire it faces at home. Those who have taken to the streets since last December to protest the nation’s economic conditions are acutely aware of Iran’s spending overseas, and they have pleaded with the regime to focus on the situation at home instead. 
The State Department’s report estimated that Iran had spent about $16 billion since 2012 on activities abroad in pursuit of its expansionist and destabilizing agenda, including propping up the Assad regime in Syria and supporting its other partners and proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Despite the discontent this creates at home, Iran is pursuing a foreign policy vision that it has set for itself since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Many Yemeni experts worry about pointing to Iran’s role because they perceive themselves as further “complicating” the situation. Other international experts fear that increasing accusatory rhetoric toward Iran will bring military confrontation between the US and Tehran. However, Iranian leaders have also pursued their destructive objectives with the closest of their sympathizers: Europe. The French government’s unveiling of the Iranian regime’s bomb plot and its subsequent decision to postpone sending an ambassador to Tehran proves that Iran is often determined to pursue its agenda regardless of its political relations with the countries it targets.
While traditional diplomacy and detente are essential policy tools that could preserve peace, stronger action needs to be taken vis-a-vis the Iranian regime, especially at a time where it brazenly boasts of its missile program and empowers its proxies. Stronger policy toward Iran should not, however, automatically translate into war or even sanctions, which ultimately affect the average Iranian citizens who are standing up to their regime. In fact, any military confrontation with Iran would be a disservice to the Iranian citizens and dissidents who desire real change and a new era of regional stability. What is most needed is stronger cooperation between the US and its allies in the Middle East region, and a policy to roll back Iran’s presence in the Middle East, where its destructive influence is placing millions of lives at risk. 
There is no doubt that Iran’s support for the Houthis is resulting in a dangerous dynamic that has helped in lengthening Yemen’s civil war. Underplaying the assistance that the Houthis obtain from Iran, or alleging their complete independence from their Iranian patron, has unfortunately led to myopic policy conclusions that could not advance peace in Yemen. Responsibility should compel us to deal with the evidence presented instead of denying it. 

  • Fatima Abo Alasrar is a senior analyst for the Arabia Foundation in Washington. Twitter: @YemeniFatima
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