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A proxy war in the north?

July 30, 2011

A little belatedly I’ve just got round to reading Robert Worth’s latest dispatch from Yemen. It’s undoubtedly great reporting, and he covers a lot of ground, making it to Taiz and Aden as well as Sana’a.

However, he gives a fair amount of prominence to the idea that a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is developing in northern Yemen. Of course he is not making allegations but rather reporting what is being said about the conflict by Yemenis, Saudis and “high ranking American officials”, but I think it is worth reiterating how little evidence there has been to date of actual Iranian involvement.

Dating to 2004, the intermittent war waged by the Yemeni government against followers of the Houthi family in northern Yemen has been fuelled by a range of factors, including but not limited to issues of religious identity.

Allegations by the Yemeni government that the Houthis are loyal to Iran were made from the early stages of the conflict (as documented by the 2009 International Crisis Group report on Sa’dah (PDF)*). Assertions were repeatedly made by the Yemeni government that Iran was supporting the Houthis; in 2009 the ICG was handed a report by the interior ministry “purpoting to document Iranian financial, ideological and logistical support” to the Houthis. ICG found the evidence to be “incomplete and biased”, and concluded that the general view was that there were only “small signs of a role by Iranian charitable organisations”.

The April 2010 Carnegie paper on “War in Saada” (PDF) by Chris Boucek came to a similar conclusion:

The Yemeni government has never produced any evidence to support its allegations that Tehran is supporting the Houthis; in fact, some Yemeni officials have confided that such assertions are unfounded.

A December 2009 cable from Sana’a finds some Saudis sceptical of the claims about Iranian involvement:

xxxx told EconOff on December 14 xxxx that Saleh was providing false or exaggerated information on Iranian assistance to the Houthis in order to enlist direct Saudi involvement and regionalize the conflict. xxxx said that xxxx told him that “we know Saleh is lying about Iran, but there’s nothing we can do about it now”.

All this is not to say that the situation has not changed, or may not change; warnings have come from several quarters that the widening of the Sa’dah conflict – most notably with the Saudi intervention in late 2009 – could inflame the sectarian dimension and encourage the rebels to seek aid from Iran. In her 2011 paper on Yemen’s relations with the Gulf states (PDF) Ginny Hill found that “in the months leading up to the 2010 ceasefire at least one Western government claimed to see some tentative signs of Iranian activity in Sa’dah.”

But it is worth bearing in mind that the unfounded allegations of Iranian involvement have been an established part of the government narrative regarding the Houthi rebellion since its inception, and these allegations are categorically denied by the Houthis themselves. Chris Boucek noted that “there are more than enough grievances in Yemen and Saada to perpetuate the fighting without drawing in regional dynamics,” – and this continues to be the case.

The widespread narratives about Iranian involvement in Sa’dah should not be dismissed as they illustrate an important dimension of the conflict, but the danger of seeing events through the lens of a proxy war is that the genuine grievances of the Houthis and their followers will be neglected.

* The ICG report Yemen: Defusing the Saada Timebomb is the most illuminating thing I have read so far on the Houthi conflict. I have yet to read the RAND book on the topic.

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