Iranians and Saudis Fight a Proxy War in Yemen

Iran is now waging a proxy war against Saudi Arabia and Yemen by supporting a radical sect of Zaydi Shiites described as the Houthis, after the founder of their movement. The Iranians aren’t merely trying to destabilize Arab countries that are aligned too closely to the U.S.; they are trying to create a Shiite empire extending from Iran through southern Iraq to Syria -- where the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Muslims, are in power -- to Lebanon. Now Iran is trying to create a Shiite enclave in northern Yemen. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it is easy to predict where they will go next: Bahrain, whose population is majority Shiite, and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which conveniently for Iran is 75% Shiite and is the location of 90% of the country’s oil.

The fighting in northern Yemen between the rebels and the Yemeni government has sharply escalated in recent weeks, with violence spilling over the Saudi border. The Saudis have responded by reclaiming their territory, bombing the rebels within a buffer zone six miles south of the border, and beginning a naval blockade in the area to prevent arms from flowing in from outside the peninsula. There is also a report that the Saudis are sending thousands of troops to provide logistical support for the Yemeni military and are financing them with $5 million per day.

Iran has reacted to the Saudi intervention by calling for a “collective approach” (read: negotiate with Iran for a settlement in their favor) in solving the crisis and offering its help in restoring stability, a not-so-subtle way of hinting that they hold the keys for a solution. The unfortunate truth is that the Iranians aren’t bluffing. The Yemenis have captured an Iranian ship delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels and arrested the crewmen: four Iranians and one Indian. The Revolutionary Guards are reportedly training some of the rebels at camps in Eritrea and shipping arms to them via the port of Asab.

A former Houthi official has confirmed that the rebels are receiving Iranian funding and training from the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force and Hezbollah. He said that members of Hezbollah may have been killed in Yemen. The rebels have fired Katyusha rockets, the same kind of weapon often used by Hezbollah, and even flew the terrorist group’s flag in 2004. The authorities have also closed a hospital in Sana after it was found to be used by the Iranians to fundraise for the rebels and to gather intelligence, and at least six arms depots containing Iranian-manufactured machine guns, rockets, and other weapons have been found.

The Iranians have also been supporting al-Qaeda in Yemen. Members of the terrorist group living in Iran are assisting efforts in the Arabian Peninsula. The deputy leader of the branch in Yemen, for example, received his position after meeting with colleagues in Iran. Mohammad al-Oufi, the former commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has confirmed that Iranian intelligence is supporting the group’s efforts in Yemen and the Gulf by providing “money and weapons needed to carry out terror attacks.”

There is no sign that the Iranians are going to back down. The foreign minister commented on the Saudi attacks on the rebels by warning that Yemen’s neighbors (meaning Saudi Arabia) “must seriously hold back from intervening in Yemen’s internal affairs.” He then added this cryptic threat: “Those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows.”

We hear often about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hear about Israel fighting Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now we’re hearing about Yemen. These are often looked upon as separate wars or, for the more enlightened, different fronts in the war against radical Islam. The latter assessment is true, but within that context, they need to be seen as proxy wars by Iran and its Syrian and Sudanese allies. Failure to see the flare-ups in these different countries as the result of an Iranian offensive leaves a key fact absent from the national security discussion: that governments are responsible for the strength of radical Islam, and that our current strategy is like attacking a horde of departing ships from a naval base while leaving the base itself intact.

The Saudis and Yemenis are hoping that their heavy hand can squash the radical Shiite insurgency, but no matter what success they achieve, they will always be one Iranian decision away from facing a reignited conflict. The Cold War was often defined by proxy wars, but that war didn’t end by the defeat of communist proxies. It was only won once the regime sponsoring the ideology and the militants acting upon it fell, and so it will be with Iran.