By David Andrew Weinberg
26 March 2015
Today’s Saudi-led international military intervention in Yemen, Operation Decisive Storm, is a decided setback for Iran’s regional ambitions. Officials in Tehran had been gloating about their proxies’ newfound dominance over four capitals in the Arab world – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa – but observers suggest that the assembly of a large multinational coalition to push back against Shi’ite insurgents in Yemen represents a new regional challenge for Tehran.
Just hours after Saudi Arabia’s announcement of Decisive Storm, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (a widely anticipated presidential candidate from the Republican Party) characterized the conflict in Yemen and the Houthis’ march on Aden as follows: “this is about Iran.” He pointed to Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to make the case that Iranian involvement in Yemen represents “the latest piece in that puzzle” for “their master plan of regional dominance.”
Although the U.S. government is quick to point out that Iranian forces do not exercise command and control over Houthi forces, Western and Arab officials confirm that Tehran has been providing the Yemeni Shiite rebel group with significant support, including funding, stepped up weapons shipments, and training and advising by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Such developments understandably set off alarm bells in Gulf capitals, particularly given Yemen’s location. The Gulf monarchies have long been concerned about Iranian activities in places like Iraq, with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal recently warning that “Tikrit is a prime example of what we’re worried about. Iran is taking over the country.” When it comes to Yemen, the director of research at a Saudi think tank close to the government, the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, explains that “security and stability in the Arabian Peninsula is a red line” for the Kingdom.
The American role in support of the anti-Houthi coalition, providing intelligence support but steering clear of direct military involvement, is likely a mixed bag for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s U.S. Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir stated in a press conference yesterday that “we are very pleased with the outcome” of discussions about the operation with Washington, but no doubt his government would have liked to see greater U.S. participation in the effort.
Senator Rubio suggests that the U.S. administration’s decision to avoid direct military involvement in Yemen is “being driven by a desire not to offend [the Iranians] so they don't get up and walk away from the negotiating table.” Perhaps a silver lining is that the Iranians themselves may feel too constrained at least for now to pursue greater escalation in Yemen, with a senior Iranian official telling Reuters that “military intervention is not an option for Tehran” in reaction to Decisive Storm.
But Iran’s reaction to the coalition operation in Yemen has been turbulent nonetheless. The spokeswoman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Marzieh Afkham, warned “this invasion will bear no result but expansion of terrorism and extremism throughout the whole region.” The chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, threatened “the outcomes of this crisis will boomerang on Saudi Arabia as war is not confined to the borders of one particular region.”
Another member of his committee, Mohammed Saleh-Jokar, also lashed out, warning that “the invading countries… will face the anger and rage of their nations.” He further suggested that “the smoke of this operation will go into the eyes of the Saudis and invaders, and it will create chaos in the region.”
Perhaps most galling for Tehran is the size of the coalition that its Yemeni proxy now confronts. Ambassador Jubeir stated that Operation Decisive Resolve included the participation “of over ten countries.” All five Sunni-ruled members of the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a joint statement justifying their participation in the operation in recent hours, and other members confirming participation in the operation include Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan. In addition to the United States, France and Britain appear to support these Sunni states’ effort in Yemen from the sidelines.
The participation of Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar in the same coalition is particularly striking, given Cairo’s firm opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood versus Ankara and Doha’s support for the group. Egypt’s naval and air forces are already participating in the operation, and Egyptian security forces indicated to the Associated Press today that they plan to join Saudi Arabia in a subsequent ground invasion of Yemen from both the Saudi border and landings by sea. Whether other participating states such as Turkey and Qatar also contribute forces for a ground operation could hint at the depth of Iran’s isolation in the region.
Similarly, Islamabad’s participation in Operation Decisive Storm is likely to get Iran’s attention given Pakistan’s location on Iran’s eastern flank. However, a senior Pakistani official recently cautioned that the Saudis were disappointed by his government’s positions when PM Nawaz Sharif met with King Salman earlier this month. The official claimed that Pakistan declined to approve Saudi entreaties to send additional troops to the Kingdom and to relocate Pakistan’s embassy to Aden as the Gulf monarchies have done. Reuters reported today that Pakistan is still “considering a request to send ground forces.”
Evidently sitting out the campaign entirely is Iran’s one friend in the GCC, the Sultanate of Oman. The Sultanate’s state news wire emphasized that the other monarchies’ joint statement on Yemen earlier today was issued by the other GCC members “not including Oman.” It also reported that the country’s top diplomat “affirmed the Sultanate's preparedness to stand at the same distance from all Yemenis.”
Surprisingly, Iran’s long-time ally Sudan opted to join the anti-Houthi alliance despite past reports that Khartoum had actually helped arm the Yemeni Shiite rebels. This apparent turnabout followed high-profile meetings yesterday between Sudanese President Omar Bashir and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Al Arabiya News Channel reported today that Sudan’s government “closed the offices of all Iranian missions and groups in the country” today and sent three fighter jets to participate in ongoing air operations against Houthi forces. Given this limited military footprint, presumably Sudan’s main contribution sought by Riyadh was to steer clear of assisting Iranian naval activities in the Red Sea.
No doubt, these developments are seen as a considerable setback by decision-makers in Tehran. But Gulf observers also acknowledge this may not necessarily ensure a swift victory given how challenging bringing order to Yemen has been throughout history. As Doha-based analyst Ibrahim Sharqieh notes, there is a risk today’s developments may “just set the stage for a prolonged conflict or civil war.”
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic Professional Staff Member at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at U.S. Congress. David holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology