Analysis: Reading Tehran’s security establishment on the strike in Sanaa

A Saudi-led military coalition against Yemen’s Ansar-Allah (also known as the Houthis) recently bombed a funeral hall in Sanaa. Western outlets reported that while the Oct. 8 strike targeted and killed Houthi officials, it also killed over 140 people. According to Al Arabiya, Saudi King Salman has mandated treatment for the wounded, while the Kingdom has more broadly shunned responsibility for casualties from the airstrike.

From the Iranian perspective, the airstrike against their Houthi allies represents an escalation of the conflict in the southern Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, the attack appears to have struck a chord with Iranian leaders. This can easily feed into existing Saudi-Iranian tension and abet the regional Cold War between the two Persian Gulf powerhouses. While rising sectarianism and the Syrian Civil War have been sources of this animosity, geopolitics and alliances also feature into Tehran’s post-strike censure.

To date, there has been an outpouring of condemnation of Saudi Arabia from Iran, including from political elites like Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif, as well as key Foreign Ministry Deputies. But the response from Iranian military and security elites, as well as conservative newspapers is particularly telling. A prominent feature of this condemnation is a penchant for narrative, circumscription of their own support for the war, as well as extending the blame for the strike to the U.S. – which is currently reviewing their support for the military coalition. Such political finger-pointing is emblematic of how Tehran has traditionally perceived the war in Yemen.

Leading conservative dailies in Tehran – Kayhan and Vatan-e Emrooz – have respectively dubbed Saturday’s bombing “Sanaa’s Karbala” and “Yemen’s Karbala,” in their headlines. The reference to Karbala – the location where the grandson of the prophet Muhammad (Hussein ibn Ali) was martyred in 680 AD – is telling. The deployment of the term coincided with the annual holiday of Ashura, which mourns Hussein’s death. Thus, the Karbala reference elevates those who died in Sanaa to Hussein’s level by implying that they are martyrs. While suffering and martyrdom are key motifs in Shiite Islam, the two Iranian outlets also offer a distinctly political message with their religious allegory. Vatan-e Emrooz reported death tolls as high as 500, likely aiming to incite greater vitriol against Saudi Arabia. And Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief is a confidant of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has harshly criticized the U.S., the U.K., and Europe for equipping the Saudis with arms. The article in Kayhan further mocks the claim the West is the standard-bearer of human rights, and per its title, offers the events in Sanaa as “proof” of Western hypocrisy.

Iran’s military elite have expanded upon this line of criticism. Iran’s former Minister of Defense, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, told the press: “If human rights organizations don’t condemn the atrocities of the al-Saud in Yemen, this will definitely imprint a shameful mark on their record.” Turning to what he perceived to be the source of Saudi aggression, he said, “American support for the al-Saud has grown their boldness, more than in the past.” Another former Minister of Defense, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, who now serves as Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), also took to blaming America. Shamkhani exclaimed that, “America is a participant in the Saudi regime’s recent atrocities – meaning the bombing of a mourning ceremony in Yemen with weapons Washington provided – and must be held accountable.”

In condemning the attack, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) struck a similar tone. The IRGC issued a press release explicitly describing a “chain of the White House’s atrocities” which includes “Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and in recent years…the oppressed and defenseless people of Yemen.”

The IRGC claims that there is a new U.S. regional policy which involves a “gradual massacre of Muslims,” a theme which the Islamic Republic has previously alluded to so as to sweep its own sectarian behavior (which has led to the deaths of countless Muslims) under the rug. Setting its sights on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the press release derided the Saudis, noting that “the blood-spilling al-Saud regime is making up for its defeats in the geographies of the world of Islam.” This is a relatively new theme in Iran’s strategic discourse, namely, the touting of its victories in theaters of conflict where Iranian proxies and Shiite militias have beaten back Sunni or Western-allied forces in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

An important element of the press release was the vague reference to support for the Houthis. While offering steadfast political and ideological support, the press release only mentioned that “the brave and noble nation of Iran has always supported the resistance of Muslim nations, particularly the oppressed people of Yemen against the Zionist [-like] crimes of the al-Saud.” This declaration did not mention, for instance (as Tehran typically does with respect to groups fighting the State of Israel) that it remains committed to militarily backing the Houthis. This failure to mention battlefield support may be an attempt to either right-size allegations of Iranian backing, or downplay instances where Iranian arms have been spotted on the battlefield, as was the case with anti-tank missiles used against Saudi armor.

Mohsen Rezaie, who commanded the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War and now is Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, also ignored the military component, only noting that Iran should take a firm stance in international organizations like the United Nations (UN) and its leading body, the Security Council (UNSC). As such, omissions about Iranian involvement in the conflict on the Arabian Peninsula – be it through arms shipments or the presence of its proxy Lebanese Hezbollah, means that the true scale and scope of Iranian support to the Houthis will likely remain murky for some time.

Returning back to narrative, Seyyed Hassan Firoozabadi, a military advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei (and former Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff) claimed that the Kingdom was picking up where DAESH (a pejorative acronym for the Islamic State) had failed. Deriding Wahhabism (the form of Sunni Islam adhered to by most Saudis), Firoozabadi exclaimed that “the attacks of Arabian warplanes has shown the true nature of Wahhabism and the al-Saud.” Firoozabadi went on to call Wahhabism an “English faith,” attempting to make it appear alien to the region. Echoing themes from the IRGC official statement, Firoozabadi proclaimed that “in various fronts today, the Saudi government faces resistance [from] revolutionary currents in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” but added that, “the Yemeni resistance in various fronts has confronted [Saudi] Arabia with defeat.”

Amid such hyperbole, an understanding of how Iranian military and security planners conceptualize threats is necessary. Iran’s security elites continue to see their regional rivalries through larger prisms like sectarianism and the global alliance structure. Therefore, the recent strike in Sanaa only serves as another data-point in the narrative-driven world view to which Tehran’s defense establishment subscribes.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Research Fellow focusing on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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