30 March 2015
On 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia supported by the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar started air strikes against the Houthis who in addition to Yemen’s capital Sana had also captured the country’s second largest city Aden forcing the deposed but still struggling President Hadi to flee. It was reported that Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Pakistan were also taking part in the operations. According to the Egyptian state news agency, Egypt’s support could involve ground forces. The US and Turkey also announced their support.
Many see the Saudi-led intervention as a reaction to Iran’s increasing influence in the region. Like in Syria and Libya the internal situation in Yemen is complicated.
The Washington Post reported that according to Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, the Saudi air strikes were the culmination of years of humiliating Iranian expansion throughout the Middle East that has seen Sunni influence shrink at the expense of Iran and its allies, and Saudi interests seemingly abandoned by the United States. “It started with Lebanon, then Syria, then Iraq and now Yemen. It’s like a domino, and Yemen is the first attempt to stop the domino… Now there is an awakening in the region, a counter-strategy, and Yemen is the testing ground. It is not just about Yemen, it is about changing the balance of power in the region,” he said. Alani blamed the United States and its pursuit of a deal with Iran for the expansion of Iranian influence that triggered the Saudi intervention.
According to the Times of Israel, “After the Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad axis, Iran is maneuvering from the south to take over the entire Middle East,” PM Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting. “The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is dangerous for mankind and must be stopped.”
President Erdogan criticized Iran in strong language for trying to dominate the region.
All of this sounds as if Iran is about to pull an iron curtain over the Middle East like Stalin did over Eastern Europe. This is exaggeration and only serves Iran’s interests.
There is no doubt that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the First Gulf War, US intervention in Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq have contributed to Iran’s rise as a regional power because while all that happened Iran was able to further consolidate the regime and work on its nuclear program. Its economy continued to stagnate under sanctions but Iran managed to absorb the punishment. Arab Spring turmoil, developments in Iraq and Syria in particular, presented Iran with new challenges as well as opportunities. Iranian influence in Iraq appeared to take a downturn with the ouster of the Maliki government but the difficulties encountered in fighting ISIL made Iran a de facto ally of the US and the pressure on Damascus lessened. But the Syria balance sheet for each regional country is yet to be written. Surely there are those who are already in the red like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon with millions of refugees as well as security problems.
Whatever the outcome, the P5+1-Iran talks have also elevated Iran’s standing. Because what the world has been witnessing here is a country negotiating with the world’s leading powers on equal footing.
As I said in a previous spot resolving the nuclear issue under a deal which reduces “break-out capacity” and allows for intrusive inspections will not prevent Iran from pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. It will put an end to the economic sanctions. It will elevate Iran’s status as a regional actor at a defining time for the Middle East. It will surely lead to a huge amount of Western investment. And, no matter how far Iran may be pushed back from the threshold of breakout capacity, such an agreement would still confirm Iran’s status as a “threshold state”. But all of that would not mean that Iran would be dominating the region.
If the talks fail, Iran will continue to suffer from sanctions but its cooperation in Iraq and Syria would still be of value to the West. In other words, its elevated status will continue with bigger question marks regarding the nuclear program. And, there would probably be unlikely alliances and some countries calling for military action against Tehran.
At present there is no single Arab country to counter-balance Iran. As a matter of fact, Iran’s rise is also a function of Arab disarray. Iraq under Saddam Hussein squandered the opportunity to become Arab nation’s powerhouse and is now fighting ISIL with its internal peace hanging in balance. Syria is devastated by war. Egypt under military rule has some muscle but hardly offers any inspiration. It faces serious economic problems. Saudi Arabia has oil, economic power; the custodianship of Islam’s holiest shrines gives Riyadh a special status but it does not have enough military weight to make a difference. Like other Gulf countries it has internal undercurrents which cause the ruling dynasty concern. Thus, while others have been wary about Iran’s ascendancy and calling upon the US to do something, Tehran has pursued its own agenda without calling for anybody’s help.
If Arab countries are uncomfortable with Iran’s growing power they have to either collectively offer a counter-weight or seek accommodation. To offer a counter-weight they would need to put behind the Arab spring turmoil through national dialogue and reform and revive Arab identity.
At the end of the Arab summit held over the weekend in Sharm el-Sheikh, it was announced that leaders had agreed in principle to form a pan-Arab force and that a high-level committee will work on the details. This is going to happen any time soon. As for Yemen it was said that the Saudi-led airstrikes would continue until the Houthis and their allies withdraw and surrender their weapons. However, it is generally agreed that Saudi-led strikes alone will not change the situation on the ground in Yemen. On the other hand, the Yemen crisis may show that Iran’s regional reach has its limits. In bridging differences Oman may play a role.
As the International Crisis Group rightly says:
“Without minimum consensus within and beyond its borders, Yemen is headed for protracted violence on multiple fronts. This combination of proxy wars, sectarian violence, state collapse and militia rule has become sadly familiar in the region. Nobody is likely to win such a fight, which will only benefit those who prosper in the chaos of war, such as al-Qaeda and IS. But great human suffering would be certain. An alternative exists, but only if Yemenis and their neighbors choose it.”(*)
In the wake of Saudi-led airstrikes Turkey was among the countries to blame Iran for its efforts to dominate the Middle East. Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center has compared Iran’s behavior to a nuclear bomb. Turkey’s response could have been the maturing of its democracy. While Iran was spinning its centrifuges for enriched uranium Turkey could turn its wheels for enriched democracy. This no longer seems to be the case. Unfortunately, hard power is always easier to attain than smart power.
(*) International Crisis Group, Yemen at War, Yemen Middle East Briefing No.45, 27 March 2015