Iran's Role in Restoring Peace to Yemen

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hossein Bozorgmanesh
Expert on Middle East Issues

Nine months after the beginning of the military operations by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which has so far left over 6,000 people dead and about 30,000 injured, a new round of peace talks were held this week (December 2015) in Switzerland between the two warring sides. The negotiations, which were brokered by the United Nations, were aimed at finding a solution to this crisis. Although countries like Saudi Arabia and a large part of the Arab media groups have been constantly trying to reduce the current crisis in Yemen to a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and make the world believe that the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s military intervention in Yemen was meant to fight off Iran's influence and excessive demands, historical facts and the reality on the ground in Yemen attest to the existence of two major problems in this country.

The first problem in this country is the issue of Zaidi Shias in Yemen, which were driven out of the power structure as a result of a coup d’état that was carried out by Nasserite pan-Arabs in 1962 after they have ruled Yemen for about 1,000 years. Subsequently, they suffered serious economic, religious and political deprivation, were persecuted by nationalist Arabs as well as anti-Shia Salafist groups, and deeply believed that there was a well-planned scheme in order to eradicate this ethnic minority. Zaidi Shias, or Houthis, who had experienced some kind of identity-based awakening and come up with political demands of their own following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, witnessed increasing presence of anti-Shia Salafist preachers, who had been sent by Saudi Arabia on the pretext of supporting the central government in Yemen in the face of South Yemen separatists forces. In practice, however, those preachers were bent on propagating Wahhabism among Zaidi Shias and this issue, boosted the resolve of Yemen’s Shias to get their political, cultural and economic rights recognized. Continuation of that process led to the emergence of Ansarullah movement and seven major military conflicts, the last of which broke out between Houthis and their ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh (the former president of Yemen), on the one hand, and the Saudi-led coalition forces, on the other hand, which has continued up to the present day.

However, major challenges with which Yemen is facing cannot be considered limited to demands of a Zaidi minority. After the coup d’état carried out by Nasserite army officers in 1962, which was followed by another coup staged by leftist officers who supported the former Soviet Union, the country was practically divided into two northern and southern parts. These ideological conflicts, which had divided Yemeni people on the two sides of political and ideological frontiers for a matter of three decades, finally reached their end after the implosion of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the national unity process in early 1990s. Of course, due to the intense rivalry among political elites in Yemen to gain more power, the national unity process in Yemen practically did not lead to broad-based participation of the elites from South Yemen in the political power structure. This happened because the leaders of North Yemen, topped by the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, were not ready to share power with southern people. Such differences over position and power finally ended in a civil war in 1994 and gave birth to a secessionist movement in the south; a movement which is now considered as a major actor in the southern parts of Yemen.

In the meantime, the issue that has drawn attention from experts and analysts of Middle East issues during the past few months has been strange insistence by Saudi Arabia and a large part of regional Arab media that have been trying to accuse Iran of supporting Yemen’s Ansarullah movement. In this way, they have been trying to ignore the core issue and avoid facing the two basic problems of Yemen, that is, the issue of the legal rights of Houthis and the secessionist movement in the south, and instead, blame all Yemen’s problems on Iran. One of the accusations that have been regularly leveled against Iran by the Arab media close to Saudi Arabia is sending arms to Shia Muslims in Yemen. At the same time, according to Yemen experts, there are more than 50 million firearms in the hands of Yemeni people and few houses can be found in Yemen in which such weapons cannot be found. Trading arms in Yemen is quite easy and ordinary people are able to even acquire heavy weapons.

By the way, it must not be forgotten that the Yemeni army, which is still loyal to Abdullah Saleh, is equipped with semi-heavy and heavy weapons and Yemenis do not need to receive arms from Iran. However, despite all the conflicts in Yemen, if regional and transregional powers make a decision to put an end to the crisis in the country, establish a national unity government through the presence of all political groups in Yemen, and recognize the rights of religious minorities, there would be hope in the termination of violence in this impoverished country. There is no doubt that to restore peace to Yemen the root causes of historical problems in the country must be addressed, and leveling baseless charges against countries like Iran by accusing them of intervention in Yemen’s internal affairs will not solve any problem. On the other hand, commitment of the political elites to principles of democracy and the rule of law will be of high significance in this regard. In the meantime, Iran can use its influence and convince the Ansarullah movement that continuation of the civil (inter-Yemeni) war will get them nowhere. On the contrary, an inter-Yemeni agreement will strip all foreign countries of the excuses and tools they have to influence Yemen and will enable Ansarullah to play an effective role in ending the bloody civil war in the country while increasing their soft power potential as a responsible actor in the Middle East.

Key Words: Iran, Role, Peace, Yemen, Operations, Saudi-led Coalition, Zaidi Shias, Salafist Groups, Houthis, Wahhabism, Ansarullah, Transregional Powers, Middle East, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Inter-Yemeni Agreement, Civil War, Bozorgmanesh

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*Photo Credit: The Herald Voice