Losers of Yemen’s Political Game Afraid of Iran's Pivotal Role

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hassan Ahmadian
PhD, Senior Researcher; IRI Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research (CSR)

The residence of Iran's new ambassador to Yemen was recently targeted by a terrorist attack carried out by the country’s Ansar al-Sharia group, which is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Mr. Niknam (Iran's ambassador to Sanaa) had been just appointed to the post upon the request of the Yemeni government. Apart from sectarian motives behind Ansar al-sharia’s terrorist activities, it is also clear that some other influential players in Yemen are angry with the new developments in this country. From their viewpoint, the rising power of the Yemeni Houthi movement is part of their mental concepts such as the “expansion of the Shia Crescent” and also part of “Iran's plot to dominate Arab societies.” Naturally, they resort to certain remarks made by some Iranian officials as well as Houthi leaders as proof to their allegations. The main question, however, is what kind of reason can justify the bomb attack against the Iranian ambassador’s residence in Sanaa? More importantly, what has been the main goal of this bomb attack and its outcome?

Unlike all other Arab countries, the situation in Yemen was marked with considerable crises even before the beginning of the Arab Spring developments as a result of which security and stability in this country has been undermined during the past decade. The situation was so serious that from the viewpoint of certain analysts, [Yemen’s former dictator] Ali Abdullah Saleh used those crises to guarantee the continuation of his despotic rule. On the one hand, the existence of crisis was used by Saleh’s government to justify suppression of his opponents and not taking any serious measure to promote democratization in the Arab country. On the other hand, the Yemeni government tried to attract foreign financial and economic aid by banking on threats that were posed through an unstable and unsecure Yemen to neighboring countries as well as international waterway close to the country. In this way, when the wave of the Arab Spring swept through Yemen, the southern part of this country turned into a breeding ground for a widespread popular movement which sought secession from the north. The northern part of the country had been already devastated as a result of six destructive wars, which had turned Yemen into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda in order to continue its regional and international operations.

The aforesaid crises on top of a rent-based, corruption-ridden economy system caused internal development of Yemen throughout the Arab Spring to be quite different from what happened in other Arab countries. As a result of the Arab Spring, the main opposition parties found an opportunity to release their full potential against the government of Saleh. It was quite predictable that under such circumstances, different political currents would take serious steps in order to realize their own specific goals. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia came up with an initiative through the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] whose main function and goal was to control domestic developments in Yemen and prevent internal crises in Yemen from turning into regional challenges for Saudi Arabia and its allies. Before recent developments in which Yemeni Houthi fighters managed to tighten their control over a remarkable number of places in northern and western provinces of Yemen, this approach defined the main direction in which Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy moved with regard to Yemen. Other regional currents and political figures that were followers of Riyadh’s foreign policy also pursued the same approach. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, however, was one of the main currents which still continued its efforts to make Yemen less secure.

As the power of Houthi fighters started to rise, conditions in Yemen changed in parallel. A stable Yemen under unrivaled control and power of Houthi fighters, has never been, and is still not, an acceptable option for the member states of the (P)GCC. In reality, a large part of developments which allowed Houthis to tighten their control over considerable parts of Yemen took part outside the framework of the national dialogue. The reason why Houthi fighters decided to act outside the aforesaid framework was the influence exerted by the member states of (P)GCC and their Yemeni allies to contain the power of Houthis and prevent them from gaining any concessions through a plan offered to turn Yemen into a federal state by introducing new administrative divisions in the country. The fact that two representatives sent by Houthis to the national dialogue were both assassinated was a clear manifestation of the (P)GCC’s opposition to the rising power of this group. After the results of the dialogue were made public, Houthis decided to say goodbye to political approach and once again go for a military approach in order to achieve their goals and prevent the results of those talks from being imposed on people living in the northern parts of Yemen.

In order to have a more profound understanding of the root causes of the recent attack on the residence of Iran's ambassador to Sanaa, it should be first made clear what parties are the main losers if Houthis’ control over Sanaa and other western parts of Yemen continue to increase. The initiative offered by the (P)GCC as well as its regional supporters top the list of these losers because the new developments have caused the (P)GCC’s initiative to be totally mothballed as a result of which developments in this country are determined outside any known political framework. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is another loser of this game. This group is now faced with a serious rival on the ground, which unlike the United States, is not fearful of direct confrontation with Al-Qaeda and has also shown great resourcefulness in this regard. Of course, Western countries are wary about insecurity and instability in Yemen and its impact on international waterways, especially maritime zones and waterways adjacent to this Arab country. However, they cannot be considered as losers of this game because of the ongoing confrontation between Houthis and Al-Qaeda, which is the main source of concern for the West.

The main point is that the primary goals pursued by the member states of the (P)GCC, especially Saudi Arabia, do not overlap with the goals pursued by Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In fact, Saudi Arabia believed that insecurity in Yemen would be detrimental to its national interest because it provides more maneuvering ground for the operations of Al-Qaeda. Therefore, although Saudi Arabia did not want Yemen to become so powerful as to emerge as a new rival for Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Peninsula, it tried to manage the insecurity in Yemen through the balance of power between Al-Qaeda and Houthi fighters. Today, however, that situation has changed. At present, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, topped by Saudi Arabia, has gone back to its 1990s strategy according to which they consider disintegration of Yemen more preferable than control of Houthi fighters over the entire country. As a result, they are faced with two bad and worse options and, as the course of events indicate, they are now apparently opting for the bad option; that is, falling apart of Yemen whose final consequences cannot be predicted as of now.

Under these conditions, Al-Qaeda and its Yemeni offshoot have seen their opportunity to increase their terrorist activities. By observing regional rivalries, they are well aware that Iran is supporting unity as well as restoration of security and stability in Yemen. Therefore, from their viewpoint, Iran is an actor, which should not be allowed to get seriously involved in Yemen’s political game. On the other hand, in view of the past experience with the ISIS, they have reached the conclusion that sectarian motivations are the most efficient took to intensify tensions and make the most of the ensuing turbulent situation. It is for this reason that despite differences with the member states of the (P)GCC, Al-Qaeda has chosen Iran's ambassador to Yemen as the first target of its terrorist operations. Of course, it should be noted that the temporary overlap between the goals pursued by Al-Qaeda and (P)GCC in Yemen does not necessarily mean that they are in cahoots. However, it shows that the member states of the (P)GCC are once again repeating the mistake they have already made in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria by totally ignoring future possibilities.

Under these conditions the role played by international community becomes more important. Now that Al-Qaeda is clearly making the most of insecurity in Yemen in order to undermine regional and international security, expansion of interactions and cooperation between Houthis, as an anti-Al-Qaeda force, and Yemeni government should be encouraged. This problem cannot be simply solved within the borders of Yemen. International community should put increasing pressure on those parties that seek to foster insecurity in Yemen, including on the member states of the (P)GCC, which top the list of such parties. It goes without saying that Iran can play a pivotal role in Yemen to help the country restore stability and security. This issue will be to the benefit of Yemen and will also help bolster overall security at regional and international levels. As a result, Iran's role in these developments should not be understood according to exaggerated mental concepts that are held by a number of extremist forces in the region.

Key Words: Yemen, Political Game, Iran, Ansar al-Sharia, Terrorist Attack, Al-Qaeda, Arabian Peninsula, Houthi Leaders, Shia Crescent, Arab Spring, Ali Abdullah Saleh, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, West, Ahmadian

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*Photo Credit: Fararu

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