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Iran's intervention in Yemen, in search of regional hegemony

The Yemeni conflict has become another of the scenarios in which the hegemony in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being settled, emerging as a frozen conflict that is difficult to solve
Khamenei and Rohani during a ceremony in Tehran

PHOTO/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AFP  -   Khamenei and Rohani during a ceremony in Tehran

Iran is one of the main regional players on the ever-complex geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East. The country has been seeking to become a hegemonic regional power for years, with evident progress in its ability to influence the area over the past two decades, particularly following the disappearance of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime. The biggest counterbalance it has found in its growing influence has been Saudi Arabia, a country which, thanks to its huge oil reserves, has managed to play a prominent role in the Middle East. This confrontation is the backdrop to Iran's intervention in Yemen, a country torn by civil war, where each national and international actor is seeking to extend its influence. 

No country in the Middle East has the enormous resources of Iran, which include its size, strategic position, educated population, strong national history and vast natural resources. The country changed radically with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which ushered in a new political system in which the state institutions are in the hands of a politico-clerical elite. Democratic elections exist in the country and, despite the exclusion of certain sectors from the political game, there have been many surprises, such as the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) or Hassan Rohani (first elected in 2013). However, effective power remains in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the true arbiter of Iranian politics, who has been in power since 1989. 

Its foreign policy is clear, marked by anti-imperialism and the pursuit of the expansion of the Islamic Revolution, which have entailed a major cost for the country in the form of economic sanctions and international isolation. Its foreign policy is based on five key elements: support for non-state actors and groups, exploitation of religious differences between Shia and Sunni, hostility towards the United States and Israel, influence on elections in other countries and limited deployment of troops in Syria or Iraq. The spearhead of its military power in the region is the Quds forces, which are led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a politicised sector of the army that is of huge importance to Iranian foreign policy. 

En esta foto de archivo tomada el 21 de septiembre de 2019, hombres yemeníes cantan consignas mientras sostienen rifles de asalto Kalashnikov durante una reunión tribal en Saná, la capital de los rebeldes hutíes
AFP/MOHAMMED HUWAIS - In this archive photo taken on 21 September 2019, Yemeni men chant slogans while holding Kalashnikov assault rifles during a tribal meeting in Sana'a, the capital of the Hutu rebels

The country has a majority population that professes Shia, a minority current within Islam and the Middle East. The political elite defends a radical Shia ideology that seeks to rely on the minorities that profess this branch of Islam to increase its influence. But its foreign policy is not based solely on a religious element, which can be symbolised by a struggle between Shia and Sunni. Its aim is to present itself as a country with a revolutionary ideology that is opposed to the United States and Israel, supporting not only Shia actors but also regional groups that allow it to extend its influence in the Middle East. 

Ana Belén Soage, in her article 'Iraq and Yemen: new satellites of Iran' for the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, points out the basic lines of the Yemeni conflict. The Houthis, who live in the northern part of the country, in the province of Saada, receive active support from Iran in the Yemeni civil war. This minority in the country are Zaydis, a separate branch of Shiism representing one-third of the Yemeni population. Hussein al-Houthi became the leader of the Zaydis, who demanded more economic resources and political participation, opposing the spread of Saudi-funded Salafist Islam. The conflict ended up leading to a progressive armed confrontation since 2004, when the leader of the movement was killed in an attempted arrest by the central government of President Saleh.

El presidente yemení Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi
AFP/MOHAMMED HUWAIS - Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi

The country already had several fronts open, with the demands of the southern regions seeking independence from the rest of the country, the significant presence of al-Qaeda in the region, the divisions in a tribal-based country and the progressive demands of young people for political change. All these elements ended up leading in 2011, within the framework of the Arab Spring, to a revolution that led to the expulsion of President Saleh, who was replaced by his vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. The amalgamation of groups that agreed to expel Saleh included the secessionists from the south, frustrated young people, the Houthis, sectors of political Islamism and even disaffected sections of the army. These actors were united by a common enemy, but in view of Saleh's disappearance they failed to reach a political agreement.

The Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council tried to mediate in the country's internal struggles, but the National Dialogue Conference failed in 2014, leading the Houthis to take up arms again. Allied with their former enemy, former president Saleh, of Zaydi origin, and with the support of army officers and the loyalty of some tribes, they managed to take the country's capital without encountering any resistance. Shortly afterwards, Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, organised a coalition against the Houthis to oust them from power and recover the territory their ally, President Al-Hadi, had lost. Saudi Arabia was thus seeking to regain the initiative in a country it considers its area of influence. 

The intervention in Yemen was a real failure for Saudi Arabia, a tremendously onerous war for Riyadh's coffers. This is added to the obvious military failure of the coalition, which has failed to wipe out the Houthi faction and gain control of the country's entire territory. Iran has supported the country's Zaydi minority over the past decades, but this scenario has been and continues to be a very secondary front for Iran's strategic priorities. The problem for Saudi Arabia arises from the fact that the Houthis are increasingly dependent on Iran for the invasion of the country. Tehran's conflict requires only limited support in terms of weapons, advisors and money in exchange for keeping its regional enemy bogged down in a conflict it cannot win and from which it cannot withdraw either. 

El expresidente de Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, en una ceremonia para conmemorar el 40º aniversario de la retirada de las fuerzas británicas de Adén
AFP/KHALED FAZAA - Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh at a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the withdrawal of British forces from Aden

Iran's goal is not to gain control of the country, or even for the Houthis to gain complete control of the territory. Indeed, for many of the country's politico-religious sectors, the Zaydis belong to a very ill-considered branch of Islam. The Iranian intervention is not a religious struggle in which it supports a branch of Shia against the Sunni, but an attempt to engage Saudi Arabia in a long-term conflict in its own backyard. In the midst of this political struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a civilian population in precarious living conditions, held hostage to a situation that has little prospect of being resolved.