Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who for roughly six-months have been ascendant and on the offensive, were met with airstrikes from a coalition of 10 countries on Wednesday evening. Designed to “defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen,” the airstrikes prominently feature Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) planes, with 100 of them reportedly from the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).
Despite being a local force indigenous to Yemen and of the Fiver-Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam (Iran is of the Twelver variety), the Houthis have reaped significant dividends from their new and evolving relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, a December 2014 Reuters report confirmed “Iranian military and financial support to the Houthis before and after their takeover of Sanaa on Sept. 21” based on divergent sourcing. It is exactly this kind of involvement that Operation Decisive Storm aims to break.
In September 2014, Iran’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Seyyed Hassan Firoozabadi, described Iran’s relationship with Ansar-Allah, the Arabic name for the Houthi movement, as follows: “we only pray for them.” This stance was later amended by Ali-Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister of Iran and currently an International Affairs Advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. In an October 2014 statement, Velayati touted: “We are hopeful that Ansar-Allah has the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah has in eradicating the terrorists in Lebanon.”
A recent (March 20th) arms-shipment of roughly 185 tons “of weapons and military equipment” at the al-Saleef port in Yemen by Iran may be one way of transforming Ansar-Allah into a new Hezbollah. Additionally, as has been well-documented, Iran does more than “only pray” for Hezbollah. That may best explain why Hezbollah, long recognized as an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, has come out so strongly against Operation Decisive Storm. In their reported statement, Hezbollah called the operation a “Saudi-American attack on the people and army of Yemen and the infrastructure of this country.”
That then brings us to Iranian responses to Operation Decisive Storm. Firstly, before addressing the position of Iran’s political and military elite, an assessment of the operation in Iranian media outlets by journalists and analysts is in order. This allows readers to diagnose the level of A) narrative vs. fact-reporting which is present and B) how much the operation is seen through the prism of the Saudi-Iran rivalry. In that regard, as would have been expected, Fars News Agency has taken the lead, promoting a regime-centric narrative castigating the Saudis. On March 26th, Fars ran a primer with links to varying elements of the war. The piece ran the following as part of a title: “The Cries of Thousands of Yemenis in Sana’a: Yemen will be the Graveyard of Saudi Agents.” Another title in Fars, this time on March 27th, paraphrased the journalist Ali-Reza Karimi, proclaiming: “Yemen, a Bite Too Big to Swallow for the Decrepit Kings of Saudi.”
Close-behind however, was Iran’s Khabar-Online, which is allegedly close to Ali Larijani, the current conservative Speaker of Iran’s Parliament [Majlis]. An article penned by a writer named Mohammed-Reza Noroozipour on March 26th, elucidated a broad retaliatory strategy for the Houthi’s. It noted that: “The Houthi’s have currently obtained the necessary excuse for engaging in any military or retaliatory operation whether it be deep in the land of Saudi Arabia, or be it in Bab al-Mandeb, the Red Sea, or even the Strait of Hormuz.” It further noted, and perhaps eerily recommended, that “The first and most valuable target for them will be the oil-wells, oil-tankers, and mother industries.”
Elsewhere, Fars ran a piece quoting a member of the Yemeni Scholars Organizing Committee, Sheikh Ali-Khaled al-Shammari, who touted: “The Yemeni Scholars Organizing Committee invited the people of this country to carry arms and [engage in] jihad after the invasion of the Saudi regime to Yemen and the targeting of innocent Yemeni citizens.” In another piece, Hassan Zaid, the Secretary-General of the al-Haq Party, reportedly “affiliated with the Houthis,” was quoted describing the operation as having taken “place with the decision of Benyamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel.”
Members of Iran’s analytical community, such as Sa’ad-Allah Zaraei, an Iranian Middle East Analyst, drew attention to the lack of legal cover the operation was believed to have. Zaraei stated that: “The action[s] of Saudi Arabia against the people of Yemen is an atrocious action and lacks any legal basis.” He then assessed Saudi intentions as follows: “By militarily attacking Sana’a and Sa’ada via air, the Saudis seek to suspend the tide of progress of the revolutionaries and Ansar-Allah until they can create special security conditions in Yemen based on the perspectives of [Saudi] Arabia and America.”
Zaraei further proclaimed that “pouring bullets on the heads of the Yemeni people will not have any interest for the people of [Saudi] Arabia.” Zarei additionally stressed a solution where Saudi Arabia would disengage from the conflict and allow the continuation of the political process in Yemen.
Yadollah Javani, another political analyst who focused more on Saudi Arabia, proclaimed: “This regime has fallen for the tricks of America and the Zionists, since with this action, they desire to make-up for their consecutive defeats in these years, but they will face [yet] another defeat.” Javani’s linkage of U.S. allies making up for any/all perceived shortcomings by the U.S. in the region is instructive. It further highlights long-held beliefs about regime-centric analysis in Iran – namely the inability to ascribe agency to local actors regardless of their political orientation. Javani continued to display this trend of over-linkage: “The military attack of [Saudi] Arabia against Yemen is related to the issues of West Asia, including the issue of Syria, the occupied territories, and Iraq.” Lastly, Javani linked Yemen’s resistance against a foreign aggressor to Iranian historical experiences.
Formally, the Islamic Republic’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, has discussed the issue of Yemen during his recent trip to the Russian Federation. But commentary by Abdollahian does not book-end the perspectives of Iran’s political elite on the current crisis. Mohammad-Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister recently proclaimed that “The events in Yemen are a bitter event taking place in the region today.” Zarif called for an immediate end to the conflict, in addition to reminding the international community that Iran would spare no effort to “inhibit the crisis in Yemen.”
Members of the hawkish National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran’s Parliament also weighed in on the crisis, often analyzing the conflict through the broader prism of the Saudi-Iranian Cold-War. The Committee’s Chairman, Ala al-Din Boroujerdi, hoped for a swift political resolution to Yemen’s crisis, but did not fall short of blaming Saudi Arabia: “[Saudi] Arabia’s igniting the flames of a new conflict in the region is an indicator of its inattentiveness and irresponsibility to the problems of the Islamic nation [Ummah], and the smoke of this fire will go into the very eyes of [Saudi] Arabia since war is never limited to one area,” he said. Picking up on the “smoke” analogy was Mohammad-Saleh Jokar, another member of the same Parliamentary Committee. He echoed that “the smoke of this operation will go into the eyes of the Saudis and invaders and it will create chaos in the region.”
Another member of the Parliamentary Committee, Esmaeil Kowsari, chose to broaden his criticism to the United Nations, noting “it is better if this organization is rounded-up and disbanded,” since, according to his perception, “This organization has allowed [Saudi] Arabia, with America’s guiding to attack the nation of Yemen, which has a domestic issue and within its country has developed a revolution.” Kowsari additionally re-iterated the line that the attack was not in the interests of the Saudi people, and they should “protest in relation to this issue.”
Iran’s former nominee to the United Nations (now an aide to President Hassan Rouhani) Hamid Aboutalebi, also joined the fray, attempting to refocus attention on Riyadh by pointing out seeming hypocrisy by the Kingdom: “Can [Saudi] Arabia logically explain its contradictory actions in supporting the developments in Egypt after Morsi from one side, and supporting the President of Yemen from the other?”
Thus far, in addition to Iran’s Foreign Ministry censuring the operation, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif has pushed back against foreign leaders like President Erdogan of Turkey, who accused Iran earlier of seeking regional supremacy. Should Iran continue to support the Houthis, even as they appear outgunned, that may translate into the loss of states like Turkey as a pseudo-ally of Iran, which is already opposed to Iran in Syria (over President Bashar al-Asad) and has formerly engaged in a sanctions-busting scheme benefiting Iran. But beyond that, despite the media-spin by Persian sources, should those partaking in Operation Decisive Storm successfully push-back the Houthis, it should not be taken as a clear loss for Iran. Indeed, while the Islamic Republic has armed and backed the Houthis, its focus remains clearly on the Levant given its steep investments in that region spanning over decades. And with nuclear negotiations reaching an apex, Iran will be inclined to pay most attention (at present) to the theaters where members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods-Force (IRGC-QF) are dying.
A win for the coalition conducting Operation Decisive Storm would at most mean that Iran’s ability to co-opt local forces in the Arabian Peninsula has been challenged. But given Iran’s clear linkage of the crisis in Yemen to other theaters of conflict in the Middle East, it and its allies will retain incentives for responding asymmetrically and elsewhere, and that is something in which the Islamic Republic excels.