A Soft Power Opportunity for Iran

During his recent visit to New York for the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much to the chagrin of officials in Washington and elsewhere, repeatedly insisted that the United States should view the Islamic Republic of Iran as a friend. Iran, Ahmadinejad proclaimed, is "an opportunity for everyone." This alleged "opportunity" must have come as news to Iran's Mideast neighbors -- especially Israel. With its well-documented penchant for supporting terrorism and upheaval throughout the region, it's difficult to see any opportunity in Tehran's often hollow overtures.

But in the neighboring country of Yemen, a very real opportunity to make good on its promise of friendship is rapidly emerging for Iran. Deprived of ink and oxygen by wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a bloody and volatile conflict has been raging in the unstable northern Yemeni province of Sa'ada. Houthi Rebels -- Shia disciples of the late Zaidi leader Hussein al-Houthi -- have for five years engaged in an on-again, off-again battle with Yemen's central government for sovereignty of the nation's mountainous north. The conflict reached its apparent apex in recent months, when the Sunni-dominated government in Sana'a unleashed what it termed "Operation Scorched Earth"; an aggressive and intentionally overwhelming summer assault from both land and air intended to shock the Shia insurgents into submission.

The conflict has created a growing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, as approximately 150,000 refugees trapped between Yemen's warring factions have been forced to flee their homes and take to makeshift camps near the southern border of Saudi Arabia. Both Riyadh and UN relief workers have to date struggled getting essential aid to these Yemeni refugees, as both Sana'a and the Houthi rebels place blame on each other for the prolonged conflict. The group Human Rights Watch recently accused both factions of endangering civilians and perpetuating the refugee crisis; while Yemen's central government continues to accuse Shia agents in Iran and Iraq of supplying and aiding the rebels.

Tehran, for its own part, has done little to assuage Yemeni -- and, for that matter, Saudi -- concerns of an Iranian hand in the conflict beyond rote denial and perfunctory statements. Sana'a, certainly not lacking in its own paranoia and fear of all things Shia, claims to have recovered Iranian-made short range missiles and other armaments from Houthi weapons depots. And just last week, one of Yemen's top Sunni clerical figures, Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zandani, placed blame for the burgeoning civil war squarely upon the Islamic Republic. "The way events are moving in this country," exclaimed al-Zandani, "indicates to us that Iran wants to export the Shia ideology by force, which we utterly reject."

However, beyond Yemeni accusations, there has been little evidence thus far pointing to Iranian involvement in the conflict. With Tehran moving tentatively toward engagement with Washington over its controversial nuclear program, it would do little good for Iran to fuel a humanitarian crisis on the border of America's primary Arab ally in the region. The concerns over Iranian misdoings being voiced in Riyadh and other Mideast capitals are more often rooted in geopolitical brinkmanship and serious misconceptions about Iran's range in the region.

But then, that's the funny thing about misconceptions -- often, they can create a window of opportunity for the misunderstood; and in the case of Iran, the conflict in Yemen could potentially serve as a leveraging device of goodwill in its efforts at Western rapprochement. Whether actual or exaggerated, Iran may possess the influence to manage and foster a ceasefire in Yemen's war torn north.

Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has invested in various proxies to aid it in its war against the West. Whether it was Sunni Hamas in the Palestinian territories, or Shia Hezbollah in the Levant, Iran quickly realized after its long and bloody war with Iraq that direct military engagement with the United States was not feasible. Instead, Tehran offered up its services to the dissidents and dispossessed of the Middle East. For these aggrieved groups, Iran provided the training and tools to resist and terrorize their enemies. For Iran, these proxies gave them legitimacy on the so-called Arab Street, as well as a tool for pressuring Western forces in the Middle East.

Using those same resources it routinely employs for asymmetric upheaval in places like Iraq and Palestine, Iran possesses the means to alter the Yemeni conflict in several ways. One, Tehran could deploy its diplomats and prominent Shia clerical figures to assist -- alongside UN monitors and Saudi officials -- in the mediation of an immediate armistice between Sana'a and the Houthis. Using its infamous Quds Force, Iran's Revolutionary Guard could divert resources and training away from its more insidious activities, and instead work to integrate Yemen's Shiites into the social and governmental fabric in Sana'a. Inverting the model it used in Lebanon, Tehran could employ, pacify, and ultimately help disarm Yemen's aggrieved Shia community.

If this sounds unlikely or far-fetched, that's because it is. Still, with just a little imagination and reorganization, Iran could transform itself into a kind of public defender for Shia minorities all around the Mideast -- call it a Peace Corps for Quds.

In the case of Yemen, Iran could earn points with the Saudis by helping to avert a refugee crisis on the Saudi border. And by pacifying the north, Tehran will free Yemen's military to focus its attention on Al Qaeda operatives in the south, earning Iran more points in Sana -- and in Washington.

Such an effort would require a massive sea change of thought inside the Islamic Republic; stripping the country's power brokers of their anti-American crutch. But in its ideological stead would be the seedlings of a positive soft power role for Iran in the Middle East. Instead of fermenting upheaval in Sunni-ruled regimes with sizable Shiite populations -- as it once did in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait -- Iran could aid in the politicization and, when necessary, the pacification of dissidents and insurgents throughout the region.