Arab World: Taking note of Yemen (JERUSALEM POST) By JONATHAN SPYER 03/30/12)
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In a notable shift in the US public stance, Washington’s Ambassador
to Yemen Gerald Feierstein this week accused Iran of supporting
Shi’ite Houthi rebels in north Yemen and separatist elements in the
south of the country. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have long
maintained that north Yemen constitutes an additional front in the
Islamic Republic of Iran’s region-wide attempt to build regional
influence through aiding proxy forces. Until now the US had remained
agnostic on this point.
The Houthi insurgency has been under way in north Yemen since 2004.
The Houthi clan, based in the Saada province of north Yemen, are
Zaidis, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The rebels are Islamist. Their
stated aim is the establishment of an “Imamate” in Yemen, to replace
what they regard as the illegitimate regime of of president Ali
Abdullah Saleh and his successors.
They number tens of thousands of fighters, and in 2009 fought a
bloody and inconclusive series of battles with Saudi forces who
sought and failed to destroy the insurgency.
US officials until now had been wont to say that while it was
theoretically possible that Tehran might support the Shia Houthi
insurgents battling the Sana’a government, no actual evidence had
emerged to establish that this was the case. They are not saying this
anymore. What has shifted?
First of all, it is worth noting that Feierstein’s public remarks
this week are not the first indication of a changing American view
with regard to Iranian support for the Houthis. On March 15, The New
York Times quoted an un-named senior US official (probably Feierstein
himself) on this matter.
The nameless official specifically accused the Iranians of
dispatching a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps to aid
the Houthis. This force, according to the official, was using small
boats to smuggle assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to the
In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat this
week, Ambassador Feierstein broadened and clarified the US position.
He asserted that Washington possesses “evidence that the Iranians
provide military assistance and training” both to the Shia Houthi
rebels in the north and to a separatist insurgency in the south of
the country. The Iranians, Feierstein suggested, seek to prevent an
orderly transition of power following Saleh’s resignation.
More broadly, said the US ambassador, Teheran wants to
build “influence and impact on the developments in Yemen through
gaining influence internally or in the wider region by establishing a
foothold in Arabia, a matter that is normally seen as a security
threat to Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.”
Asked whether the Iranians provide this support to the Yemeni
insurgencies directly or via proxies, Feierstein replied
that “available evidence” confirmed that both Hezbollah and Hamas
support the Iranian “role and effort.” He particularly noted the
presence of southern Yemenis in Beirut who act as a conduit for
Iranian support to the separatist insurgency in the south.
Feierstein’s interview was significant on a number of levels.
Firstly, US ambassadors do not simply take it upon themselves to
suddenly announce to the media a significant shift in the American
understanding of events. The increasingly public US acknowledgement
of the Iranian- Saudi cold war in the region, and more broadly of
Iranian attempts to build political influence through the activation
of proxies, is part of the more generally hardening US stance toward
It represents a growing awareness on the part of the US
administration that its allies in this region – Israel, Saudi Arabia
and the Gulf emirates – were not simply engaging in paranoid fantasy
when they sought to warn US emissaries of the dangers of Iranian
political and proxy warfare to the regional order.
Feierstein in public this week sounded like the Saudi and Israeli
officials whose private talks with their US counterparts were
revealed by Wikileaks. The awareness of and concern at Iran’s adroit
use of proxy forces to stir the regional cauldron and build power and
influence was the point of commonality.
Whether this growing awareness will produce a corresponding shift in
the administration’s currently somewhat rudderless regional policy
remains to be seen.
Secondly, the remarks reflect real and justified US worry regarding
the chaotic situation in Yemen. Even prior to the political unrest of
2011, the country was reeling under the impact of three separate
insurgent movements (the Houthis, the southern separatists and Al
Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP). In addition, Yemen faced a
serious water crisis, growing lawlessness, tribal defiance of the
central authorities outside of Sana’a and dwindling oil supplies.
This situation has now been vastly complicated by Saleh’s departure
and moves toward political reform. In Yemen, as elsewhere, the
departure of the military dictator has not brought a smooth
transition to a new political order. Rather, Islamist forces have
moved to exploit the vacuum.
As Saleh’s forces sought to maintain control of the capital last
year, the Houthis, who professed support for the anti-government
uprising, expanded their area of control from Saada to al-Jawf and
parts of Hajjah governates.
Some Yemeni officials believe that the goal of the Houthis is to take
the Midi seaport in the Hajja governate. If this fell into their
hands, it would open up the possibility of a permanent Red Sea route
for the transport of Iranian heavy weapons to the insurgents. This,
in turn, would make feasible a Houthi push toward the capital,
Sana’a. It may well be that this prospect has served to attract the
attention of the US administration and induce a sudden clarity.
From an Israeli (and Saudi) point of view, the claim that no evidence
existed linking Iran to the Houthis was always a strange and tenuous
one. Indications to the contrary have been accumulating in recent
years. In October 2009, the Yemeni authorities reported that they had
intercepted an Iranian arms carrying vessel on its way to Midi. The
Saudi al-Arabiya news network noted a visit by the former South
Yemeni president to Beirut, where he petitioned Hezbollah for support
for the Houthis and for South Yemeni independence. The Houthis,
meanwhile, claim that Saudi Arabia is itself arming Salafi Islamist
elements in north Yemen as a means of pressuring them.
North Yemen today constitutes a largely ignored but important arena
for the wider regional cold war between Iranian- and Westernaligned
blocs. This contest has survived the Arab upheavals of 2011 and is
continuing. Ambassador Feierstein’s remarks, meanwhile, show that
this reality is becoming harder to deny. Even for those who in the
past have found denial of this sort to be a preferred approach to
regional policy. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 03/30/12)
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