THE BLOG
11/23/2016 12:17 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2017

How Iran dragged Saudi Arabia into the Yemeni Quagmire

By Ali Hashem

In a meeting room at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, back in October, nine foreign ministers sat down to discuss the future of war-torn Syria. Among them were Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Adel Jubeir, and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif. For five hours, talks took place in the same room with both men sitting coincidently facing each other, yet they didn't utter a single word to one another; "Not even a nod", a diplomat present in the room told me.
The level of hostility among the two Persian Gulf countries reached an unprecedented level with each of them throwing pebbles in the backyard of the other. The Saudis are meddling in Syria and the Iranians in Yemen, and each is leading a war to preserve influence within the borders of its national security. While Iran's war has so far succeeded in keeping the defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, the one-year-8 month-old war has won Saudi Arabia several provinces back from the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, yet has failed in restoring Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi or taking control of the capital Sana'a, hence it didn't achieve its main goal. Riyadh is desperate to reach a solid achievement that could help end this costly quagmire. One of the faces of this desperation was the Oct. 8th massacre in Sana'a where a Saudi airstrike killed more than 140 people, and was later blamed by a Saudi inquiry team on "bad information".
On one hand the Houthi rebels continue to launch rockets across the borders in retaliation for.... On the other hand, their Iranian allies have been intensifying their verbal attacks throughout the last year and a half, and their hostility has currently peaked. The Iranian rhetoric over Yemen is far fiercer than that on Syria. Prior to the Saudi campaign, Iranian officials were still calling for solving regional problems together. However, a few weeks after the war, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared a war of words on the Kingdom warning "Saudis' noses will be rubbed in Yemen's mud." Over the past nineteen months, the level of escalation surpassed Khamenei's vows, and the slogan "death to the Saud Family" spread wherever Iran has loyalists. It's true that this has to do too with the Sep. 2015 Mina incident that led to the death of more than 400 Iranian pilgrims, and is as well related to the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr El-Nimr, but it's obvious that as much as the Iranian rhetoric is negative, the officials in Tehran are content seeing their regional rivals drained in Yemen.
Up until March 2015 Iran was the only regional state-party stuck directly in a real war of attrition in the region. The Iranians' involvement in Syria affected their image on the Arab Street. The Saudis, however, found this as an opportunity to win hearts and minds and prove that slogans raised by Iranian revolutionaries during the past three decades were merely material for political consumption. Iran was losing on the street, as much as it was in politics. It was defending a lost cause when siding with a regime accused of killing its own citizens.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen changed the whole equation creating a new balance of allegations. It's the war of Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. His message to the region and the world is that his country is a power to be reckoned. All possible resources were allocated to this campaign. However, it was clear that Riyadh had estimated the battle would be won within a weeks. The Houthi rebel group that champions Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim group, along with forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, were driven out of several provinces in the southern part of Yemen, yet, they were strong enough to maintain control over the capital and other strategic positions, while launching attacks along the 1800 Km-border with Saudi Arabia. They also managed to take control of several army posts there. This prompted the Saudi-led coalition to intensify their air strikes and ground operations, thus getting more immersed in Yemen and drifting away from Syria. The stakes were high for the Deputy Crown Prince who was well aware that an imperfect victory might cost him the future he'd been planning for, let alone failing to achieve the main objectives of the war. Tehran's card, beside media and political support, was fiery speeches. From Tehran to Baghdad and Beirut, politicians and clerics affiliated with Iran concentrated on the failures of the Saudi-led war. They hit the Saud family hard, and later aimed their blows at the Wahhabi movement as a whole. It is as if the axis led by Tehran was intentionally escalating its tone to get Riyadh fixated on the war in Yemen in order to be able to dominate the war in Syria, or at least this is what their plan, given all the new emerging elements affecting the dynamics of the Syrian crisis.
Nobody would want to be in Saudi Arabia's shoes at the moment. If the Gulf monarchy decided to stop the war while the Houthi rebels are still strong and standing still, that would mean a pyrrhic victory. If it decided to continue its campaign without a clear horizon, that would prompt its embarrassed western allies to exert pressure for a seizure of military operations. Whatever happens, it's obvious that ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia lack any chance of rapprochement in the near future. This means more tension wherever both countries have influence. Riyadh might try to hurt Iran from the inside by supporting separationists. Tehran's Trojan horse might be hiding in the Shiite dominated eastern side of Saudi Arabia. Then, the proxy war would have a different taste.