Iran’s point is that Riyadh cannot now extricate itself. Tehran wants to hold Saudi Arabia in Yemen and pin it down and also test its drones and missiles on Saudi Arabia. The message is clear. Iran hopes this proxy war will prove to be a watershed – and that it can then use the same tactics it used in Yemen against the US in the region and against its partners and allies, such as Israel. Writes Writes Seth J. Frantzman
Iran is investing heavily in the war in Yemen, through technical know-how and provision of weapons over the last six years, as well as political capital. Where once the Houthi rebels were portrayed as an indigenous rebel force that sprang from the mountains of Yemen, Iran is now taking ownership of the war.
This isn’t the first time Yemen has been caught in a proxy war. In the 1960s it was a center of conflict for Egypt and other powers, including Saudi Arabia. Today, the situation has changed and Iran is seeking a broader foothold. Iran also thinks that it has outplayed the Saudis and the US in the country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Tehran initially sought to use the war there as a testbed for new munitions, supplying expertise in long-range ballistic missiles and also improving the Houthis drones.
The war in Yemen is now widely understood to have repercussions for the region, including Israel. Israel’s air defense systems, including the Iron Dome, have been improved in recent years to simultaneously confront multiple threats, including drones and missile salvos. Drones and missile salvos are what Iran has been working with the Houthis on perfecting.
To understand how Iran has sought ownership of the war in Yemen, one can look at Iran’s media reports. The regime shows support by heralding each Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia as a success. It often published the Houthi accounts of targeting Saudi Arabia as the attacks unfold. It also interviews leading Houthis to send messages to the US and Saudi Arabia about upcoming threats and attacks.
Now Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has upped the rhetoric again, singling out Yemen as a key property for the Islamic Republic. “The Saudis started the war in Yemen with the green light and vast military aid of Obama’s Democrat government, thinking they would bombard the unarmed, defenseless people of Yemen making them surrender in a month,” he wrote on Sunday night.
It is interesting that he singled out the Obama administration by name and the US Democratic Party. The new Biden administration has sought to reduce support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive role in Yemen. On Sunday night, airstrikes hit the Houthi-controlled city of Sanaa.
“Six years have passed and they [the Houthis] haven’t surrendered. They [the US and Saudis] were very mistaken,” Khamenei said. He went on demanding that the US be asked about giving a green light to Riyadh in 2015.
“Did you [Americans] know what a quagmire you were getting the Saudis into?” he asked. “Now, they can neither end the war, nor continue it. Did you Americans know what a disaster you were creating for the Saudis? If you did know, how miserable your allies are to be treated in such a way! And if you didn’t know, again how miserable they are that they trust you!”
The tweets provide an interesting view into the leadership of Iran and its Yemen policy. On the one hand, they illustrate how deeply they blame the US for the Saudi war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia intervened with the support of the UAE and other countries in the region in 2015. Support for Riyadh eroded after the Gulf crisis with Qatar.
Soon major Gulf media outlets and Turkish media were more critical of the Saudi role. Iran also increasingly tried to supplant the Saudis in Lebanon, necessitating Riyadh to call Saad Hariri to the kingdom for consultations. Now it appears to see reversals for the Yemen forces it supports in Marib. Chaos in Aden also has not helped.
Iran’s messaging is that they think they have put the Saudis into a trap. What appeared to be an easy campaign has become a “quagmire,” and Iran wants to keep it that way. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Egypt also entered Yemen in the 1960s and found itself in a Vietnam-like quagmire which allegedly harmed its ability to move troops to confront Israel in 1967.
Iran’s point is that Riyadh cannot now extricate itself. Tehran wants to hold Saudi Arabia in Yemen and pin it down and also test its drones and missiles on Saudi Arabia. The message is clear. Iran hopes this proxy war will prove to be a watershed – and that it can then use the same tactics it used in Yemen against the US in the region and against its partners and allies, such as Israel.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.