Recent developments in Yemen and the killing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has highlighted what Iran has sought long to cloak. Tehran’s campaign in Saudi Arabia’s backyard has stumbled upon major political and military setbacks, providing the opportunity for Washington to correct a policy in need of strong amending.
How the future unfolds in Yemen has the potential of sparking a series of major defeats for Iran across the region, spilling into the country’s shaky politics and fueling further domestic unrest.
Senior Iranian officials, however, have gone the distance to portray Saleh’s death as a step forward against their regional archrivals, mainly Saudi Arabia.
Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) chief Mohammad Ali Jafari described it as the end of a “sedition” or “treason.”
Ali Akbar Velayati, the international affairs advisor of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, even described Saleh as the agent of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who deserved such a fate.
The two, considered members of Khamenei’s inner circle, describe the latest events in Yemen as a conspiracy. The bigger picture, however, reveals a major rout for Khamenei’s ambitions in the Arabian Peninsula.
Saleh’s forces have separated from the Iran-backed Houthis, depriving Tehran of a large bulk of vital manpower on the ground. Saleh enjoyed the support of a large segment of the armed forces, many tribes and the Popular Congress Party with all its branches in cities across Yemen.
The Houthis, being a militia entity, have now lost this key source of support and legitimacy for their cause. To add insult to injury for Iran, a large portion of Saleh loyalists have pledged allegiance to the Saudi-led coalition, providing crucial ground forces and intelligence to their effort against the Houthis.
This renders meaningless Iran’s claims of now enjoying full control over Sanaa. Even after Saleh’s death Iran sought to seal all resulting rifts in Yemen’s landscape, understanding the meaning of losing Saleh’s boots. This can also be considered a signal of the Houthis’ fragile and vulnerable status quo.
It is safe to say these turn of events have terminated any hope of negotiations for the Houthis, as they have revealed their true nature. It has become crystal clear for all parties in Yemen, and across the Middle East, of the fate awaiting those who mingle with Tehran. To begin with, Yemen’s long slate of tribes will now – if not already – have deep suspicions over Iran’s intentions on their soil.
Comprehending the lack of any tangible future for his regime’s Yemen initiative, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has twice called for engagement and negotiations with regional states.
This marks a stark change in strategy for Iran, as Yemen for Khamenei resembled a bargaining chip, based on the alliance they previously enjoyed with Saleh’s loyalists.
Yemen has now become the most vulnerable piece of Iran’s Middle East puzzle. Tehran’s position in the region is also downgrading and weakened deeply, making Rouhani’s call for talks more understandable.
The setbacks in Yemen has had its impact on Iran’s other political endeavors. Following the recent missile launch from Yemen targeting Riyadh, and evidence showing the missile being of Iranian origin, France and other European countries have voiced positions far different from their stereotype calls for engagement with Tehran.
Parallel to French President Emmanuel Macron seeking talks to curb Iran’s ballistic missile program, his top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian in a recent interview signaled Paris will not accept Tehran’s military expansion to the Mediterranean.
This can be considered France’s response to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s New York Times op-ed defending his regime’s ballistic missile program, and literally falling to Europe’s knees to protect Tehran from U.S. President Donald Trump’s major shift in policy vis-à-vis Iran.
The Trump administration is on the verge of publicly displaying evidence proving Iran is procuring missiles to the Houthi.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is also set to present further evidence of Tehran’s weapons proliferation, potential U.N. sanctions violations, acts of destabilization and threats to U.S. allies.
These developments have also spilled into Iran. Mostafa Tajzadeh, an Iranian politician known to succumb to Khamenei’s demands, criticized the IRGC’s intervention in Yemen, saying there was “nothing to make of Yemeni territory that have any strategic importance for Iran.”
Iran took advantage of Obama’s engagement policy to make advances across the region, including Yemen. With times changing, Tehran should not be provided any more such opportunities.
The U.S. Congress is weighing new Iran sanctions for its destructive role in Yemen and policies aimed at destabilizing the country through ongoing support for the Houthis, including supplying them with weapons.
To further trouble matters for Iran, Russia this week evacuated its embassy employees and citizens in Sana’a, reports indicate. One can conclude Moscow sees no hopeful future anytime soon in Yemen and Tehran has most likely lost a partner to bear the mounting challenges.
In fact, a strong stance in Yemen and liberating this country from the Houthis should be used as a launching pad by the international community to begin reigning in Iran’s expansionist policy across the Middle East.
Trump is scheduled to outline his first National Security Strategy next week. After refusing to certify the controversial Iran nuclear deal, registering the IRGC as a terrorist organization and again voicing Bashar Assad has no future in Syria, rest assured Iran’s role in the Middle East will be a major topic in Washington’s new blueprint.