While Israel is once again pushing back against the Iranian
buildup in Syria, Iran is marking the fourth anniversary of its rise to power
on Saudi Arabia’s border. Out of sight and out of the headlines, the Yemen
conflict should not escape the attention of those concerned about the future of
the region, and Iran’s role in it.
Four years ago, a dramatic surge into Sanaa by the Iranian-backed Ansar Allah movement – popularly known as the Houthis – overthrew the internationally recognized President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and threw the impoverished nation into a civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
While domestic politics in the aftermath of the Arab Spring played its part in the unfolding events, Iran has supplied financial, material and political support for the otherwise isolated group, which has managed to hold Sanaa and bring the fight to a coalition of Arab forces.
The ensuing conflict has been brutal, and the gulf coalition has come under heavy criticism for its conduct. The geopolitical calculus, however, remains the same today as it did in 2015. Iran now has a quasi-proxy in the backyard of its regional foe – the same fortuitous turn of events that saw Iran suddenly on Israel’s southern border after the Hamas coup in Gaza.
While Iran might not control the Houthis to the extent it can the Shiite militia in Iraq or the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi proto-state will nevertheless transform into a new Gaza, should it be given the chance to set its roots.
For close observers of recent conflicts between Israel and Hamas, the comparisons with the Yemen conflict do not end there. While Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been the target of protests and even calls for sanctions in Washington and around Europe, this uproar hardly reflects the whole story, let alone provides a path to peace and rehabilitation.
The Houthis, for example, have been hard to entice to the negotiating table. And when the United Nations and the international community have succeeded in brokering ceasefires, it is no coincidence that they have almost always been the at-fault party when those ceasefires are broken.
The latest truce, signed in December, was breached in spirit with devastating effect by a new sophisticated Houthi drone that killed six soldiers and intelligence chief Brig.-Gen. Saleh Tamahat at a public gathering. As with Hamas, Iranian proxies use their non-state status to rebalance the playing field to their advantage, drawing an established military into a conflict in which they can only lose ground.
In this spirit, ceasefires are treated as pauses to reload and regroup, and there is nothing less beneficial for the mid- to long-term interests of civilians on the ground than a complete breakdown in trust.
While ensuring humanitarian aid and responsible practices in times of war are non-negotiable, the regional context and justifications of the conflict can never be eclipsed if the bloodshed is to come to a definitive end.
For too long, Iran and its proxies have been given a free hand to destabilize nations, fell governments and install puppet regimes. The international community turned the other cheek when Hezbollah at first infiltrated Lebanon’s politics, and then its military, while Syrian President Assad massacred his own people and turned on the Kurds, and while Iraq became hollowed out.
For Iran, nothing would be a greater prize than turning Yemen into the next Gaza or south Lebanon. It would provide Iran with even greater influence over shipping lanes – especially regarding the movement of natural resources further afield – and would become a permanent thorn in the side of many more pragmatic Sunni Gulf nations.
Iran gaining a foothold in a strategically valuable country such as Yemen would be a game-changer for a country under significant pressure. Iran, and its other client states such as Qatar, are under tremendous pressure economically, diplomatically and politically. Iran is suffering and its people are turning on it, while Sunni nations are moving forward together, with the eventual normalization of ties with Israel being firmly on the agenda.
The nuclear weapons sanctions snapped back by the Trump administration, and new measures by the European Union against Iran following its involvement in four terrorist attacks in Europe, are taking their toll on the ayatollahs and their regime.
Iran is on the ropes and must not be given breathing space to resuscitate itself. This is the time for more pressure to be applied. No quarter should be given to Iran in Yemen, and no respite should be given to the Houthis for their coup and illegitimate hold on Sanaa.
While there are no easy choices in this region, and no innocent parties, we must look at the wider picture and take steps to stabilize it for the good of the people who suffer the most from these proxy wars. Rather than simply playing the role of arms dealer or shocked bystander, the international community should do everything possible to force Iran into withdrawing its hand. The alternative is the rise of a new Gaza, which is the last thing any rational or pragmatic force should desire.
The Houthi slogan, “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam” – an almost exact copy of the regularly heard Iranian mantra coined by Ayatollah Khomeini – tells us everything about their ultimate intentions and goals.
For a more stable and secure Middle East, the Houthis and their patron Iran have to be stopped. While Israel and the West have been largely distracted by events in the Near East, Iran has been busy digging in, in arguably the most politically and geographically sensitive part of the region.