Yemen isn’t Lebanon
It means that a method that works in one case might not necessarily works in every situation. Applied to empire-building enterprises, the wisdom of this dictum is apparent in the case of Iran’s involvement in the Yemeni imbroglio.
Acting as an opportunist power Iran entered into this Yemeni crisis. Some self-styled empire-builders in the Iranian military-security establishment persuaded themselves that they could add another feather to their cap.
They dragged Iran into a complex situation with little or no knowledge of how things work or don’t work in Yemen. Whatever the outcome of the experiment one thing is certain: Iranian strategy in Yemen has already failed. There are two reasons for that failure.
The first is that the fantasy about the United States switching sides in the Middle East and acknowledging Iran as regional hegemon. Perhaps, Tehran took US President Barack Obama’s statement too seriously, in which he called Iran a “regional power” and tried to modulate US policy in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to please the mullahs.
It would be instructive to recall that Obama has only 18 months remaining to continue playing in his fantasy world. Once he fades into a footnote in history, the US and European democracies might not endorse a policy designed to hand over the Middle East to the mullahs and their ex-KGB allies in Moscow.
The fantasy in question is absurd even in the context of Obama’s absurd foreign policy. Doing all he can to put the US into global retreat mode, he cannot, at the same time, give the mullahs a helping hand in extending their empire into Arabia Felix.
The reason for the failure of Iranian designs in Yemen is that it is a pathetic copy of Tehran’s Lebanon strategy and as such, inapplicable to Yemen. The Iranian scheme in Lebanon has worked, at least so far, because of factors that are either different or non-existent in Yemen.
Lebanon is a tiny country covering just 10,400 sq. km and thus relatively easy to control with a small force. Yemen, however, covers an area of 527,000 sq. km with a variety of terrains spanning mountains, deserts, coasts and islands.
Lebanon has a population of around 5.6 million concentrated in and around the greater Beirut region and a dozen urban areas. Yemen’s population of almost 27 million, however, is spread over a vast territory with an estimated 7,000 villages and scores of semi-urban settlements from the borders of Rub’al Khali to the Red Sea.
Those who know Aden would know that neither the Houthis nor any other armed group, including the remnants of the National Army, have the resources to seize control of that shapeless sprawling city. In the late 1960s the British had to deploy over 50,000 troops to control a much smaller Aden and, in the end, did not succeed.
There is yet another difference between Lebanon and Yemen. In Lebanon, Iran enjoyed the support of the country’s largest neighbor Syria. In the case of Yemen, no neighbor is prepared to act as a channel for Iranian domination. If anything, Yemen’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia and Oman — do not wish to witness a repeat of the Lebanese scenario.
Another major difference is that the Shiite community in Lebanon has had historic links with Iran going back almost five centuries. As Twelvers, Lebanese Shiites have always been close to Iran, the program to reorganize and strengthen the Shiite community started under the Shah with the dispatching of missionaries, led by the charismatic Moussa Sadr and backed with generous donations by the Iranian government. Iran under the Shah had 2,400 soldiers in southern Lebanon ostensibly to protect Shiites from Yasser Arafat’s PLO fighters.
The Lebanese Christian community was also sympathetic to Iran because of shared opposition to pan-Arabism led by Nasser and the Ba’ath movement.
In Yemen, however, the recent presentation of the Zaydi community — some 42 percent of the population — as Shiites does not reflect the reality of how they are perceived in Iran. The Iranian clergy regards Zaydis as a splinter from original Shiism in the same way as it regards a range of other communities.
Even then, it is clear that the Houthis, though well-armed and well-funded, do not represent a majority among the Zaydi community in Yemen. In recent weeks, many Zaydis in both Sana’a and Taiz have been demonstrating against the Houthis and their Iranian backers.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has not gone for a direct power grab. It has kept the facade of power intact, using its guns to impose its will from inside the system. Lebanon had a president (at least until recently), a prime minister, a Cabinet, a Parliament and a national army. However, when it comes to Iran’s interests, Hezbollah is able to carry out Tehran’s orders by bypassing all those formal entities.
The Houthis, however, went for a brazen power grab, which, as might have been expected, mobilized other currents of Yemeni politics against them. Their final mistake was to seize the presidential palace and force the incumbent to tender his resignation at gunpoint.
While Hezbollah uses the threat of assassination to force other factions to comply with Iran’s will, it does not solely depend on violence. With a mixture of flattery and bribery involving money from Tehran, Hezbollah now has recruited clients within all Lebanese communities. The Houthis, however, have exaggerated their gun power in dealing with Yemen’s various communities.
No one can imagine a Houthi administration controlling even the northern, mostly Zaydi, provinces let alone the whole of Yemen. Houthis have heightened their profile largely thanks to an alliance with the deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the remnants of his regular army.
In military terms, too, the Lebanese scenario, with Hezbollah as key player, is not applicable to Yemen. Iran created and armed Hezbollah for low intensity warfare, not wars of position aimed at capturing and holding territory.
Iran wants Hezbollah for firing missiles and rockets, conducting urban attacks through car bombs and individual assassinations, and other guerrilla-style operations.
In Yemen, however, the Houthis’ armed branch is deployed in a conventional war for which it does not have the necessary means. The net result of the Iranian imperial scheme, if it does indeed exist, could be Yemen’s disintegration.
Trying to re-enact the Lebanese scenario in Yemen has so far led to disaster for all concerned.
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