Iran's Dangerous Game In Yemen: The Saudis Feed The Yemenis And The Iranians Arm Them
04 November 2014
By Amir Taheri
"Yemen is simple," says a European diplomat working on
a report for NATO on the war-torn nation. "The Saudis
feed the Yemenis and the Iranians arm them. So, what
is left for Yemenis to do, except chew qat and fight
Like all caricatures, this verbal caricature puts the
aggrandizing lens on just one aspect of a complex
situation, exaggerating its importance.
Today, Yemen is a tangled web of conflicts that,
though they must be examined one by one, can't be
fully understood without reference to their collective
Since 2010, Yemen has been on a slippery slope towards
becoming an ungoverned or semi-governed territory, an
experience shared by many others at different times in
their history. Right now, a number of countries,
notably the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central
African Republic, South Sudan, and, of course,
Somalia, are passing through the same experience in
No nation is immune from suffering that fate. If the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not crushed
it could turn four of Iraq's 18 provinces into
"ungoverned" zones. The phenomenon could spread from
Syria and Iraq to their neighbors, notably Lebanon and
Turkey. Some analysts include the so-called "badlands"
of northwest Pakistan in the list of ungoverned zones.
Parts of the disputed Kashmir and both the Pakistan
and Iranian provinces of Baluchistan are also in
danger of moving in this direction.
The disease, if one may call it such, is not confined
to newly created states in the Third World. Vast areas
of the United States became ungoverned territory
during its Civil War. Spain had a similar experience
during the Spanish Civil War. For much of the 1990s,
Afghanistan was a vast ungoverned zone. More recently,
ungoverned territories emerged in parts of the former
Yugoslavia for almost a decade. Parts of Myanmar
(Burma) are in that situation today.
Looking at the Yemeni crisis as an issue of
regional—and to some extent even
international—security, is therefore perfectly
legitimate. Yemen's crisis poses a threat to both
Saudi Arabia and Oman, if only because it could
produce a humanitarian catastrophe with vast numbers
of refugees trying to cross the borders. The effective
disintegration of governmental authority could also
threaten the security of sea-lanes in the Gulf of Aden
and the Red Sea, especially Bab El-Mandeb, one of the
most sensitive chokepoints in global maritime traffic.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States feared that
the Yemeni island of Socotra would provide the Soviet
Union with a platform to project power across the
Indian Ocean. Anarchy in Yemen today could mean the
capture of Socotra and smaller islands in the Gulf of
Aden and the Red Sea by terrorist groups like ISIS. We
have already seen what piracy is doing in Somalia.
What is astonishing is that this growing danger is
either ignored by the major powers or exploited for
petty tactical advantage by regional rivals. In the
latter context, Iran is pursuing a dangerous
Tehran official media wax triumphant because a few
Houthi demonstrators in Sana'a carried portraits of
the late Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ali
Khamenei. The daily Kayhan, published under Khamenei's
control, headlined a report on the entry of Houthis in
Sana'a as "the victory of our Islamic Revolution."
The paper's editorialist couldn't contain his
excitement in narrating what he thought was the
adoption by Yemenis of Khomeini's version of Islam.
He ignored the fact that the Houthis' army of around
10,000 gunmen can hardly control Sana'a, a city of
some 2 million inhabitants, not counting the mass of
recently arrived refugees. Those who know Sana'a's
countless labyrinthine twists and turns know that talk
of any enforced control is nonsense, especially when
the supposed controllers are not natives of the
Another thing the editorialist didn't know is that the
Houthis are reluctant to assume governmental
responsibility, something for which they lack the most
elemental preparation. Like almost all Yemenis,
Houthis know how to use their guns. But they have no
political program or administrative experience to
In fact, no one can really control Yemen, or ever has.
In Yemen, the question is one of the management of
chaos rather than governance in the classical sense of
the term. More importantly, Kayhan's editorialist did
not know that Yemenis with guns could always be hired
but are never bought.
Iran is not alone in ignoring that fact. The United
States, too, has been spending vast sums trying to buy
various Yemeni factions, chasing the will-o'-the-wisp
of an ever-elusive alliance. Though among the 10
poorest nations in the world, Yemenis still walk in
the middle of the street as proud as Gary Cooper in
Yemenis certainly don't want, or need, either a
Hezbollah or an Iranian-syle Supreme Leader, as
Khamenei seems to believe. But nor do they want
liberal democracy as some in Washington claim. This
may shock some people, but Yemen, even under Imam
Ahmad, presented as a medieval monster by many in the
Western media, seemed to be happy. The reason was that
the so-called Imam lacked the coercive instruments to
frighten them, and did not have the resources to bribe
them. He just left them alone.
The civil war of the 1960s was the result of outside
intervention, notably by Gamal Abdel Nasser pursuing
his dream of an Arab Empire. Khamenei's dream of a
Khomeinist empire is equally doomed.
Today, Yemen is on the edge of humanitarian tragedy.
It is effectively divided into at least four segments:
the north where Houthis form the biggest armed group;
Aden and part of the south, where the secessionists of
the Al-Hirak movement have most of the guns; the
Hadhramaut, where jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda are on
the rampage; and finally, a few isolated pockets where
tribal chiefs still exercise some authority. The
nation is dependent on foreign aid for 90 percent of
its food and almost all of its medical needs. Almost
all of foreign aid has now been diverted to emergency
operations and, yet, the prospect of mass famine looms
larger. What is needed are urgent efforts to create
breathing room to prevent the tragedy of total
systemic collapse. The United Nations should take the
lead by calling on all concerned to at least stop
pouring more oil on the fire.
Yemen can't be anybody's poodle but, if turned into a
hungry wolf, it could bite many.
Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated
in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive
Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79).
In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday
Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the
Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI).
Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the
Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York
Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique
Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between
1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German
daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of
which have been translated into 20 languages. He has
been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987.
Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published
by Encounter Books in London and New York.