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.
Recent developments across the region are signaling increasing isolation for Tehran. Despite investing for decades, Lebanon and Yemen are literally slipping out of Iran’s hands.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri sent shockwaves across the region by announcing his resignation. The recent missile attack by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen targeting Riyadh crossed a costly red line for Tehran.
Turning point in Lebanon
In Hariri’s own words, Iran and Hezbollah had literally taken the entire country of Lebanon hostage, making it impossible to carry out his duties.
Evidence also revealed an assassination plot threatening his life. Western and Arab intelligence services unveiled how his entourage was targeted, in a blueprint similar to his father’s assassination.
“Those who planned to assassinate prime minister Hariri deactivated the observation towers while his motorcade was passing by,” Reuters wired citing Al Arabiya.
Three issues related to this development are worth pondering over:
1) Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh only one day after his meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, international affairs advisor of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in Beirut.
2) The United States launched a new Iran policy targeting this regime’s destabilization and terrorism across the region.
3) Hezbollah has come under severe sanctions, including three bills passed by the US House of Representatives on October 25th.
a. H.R. 359 calling on the European Union to designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization
b. H.R. 3342 sanctioning Hezbollah for using innocent civilians as human shields
c. H.R. 3329, known as HIFPA, targets Hezbollah’s international financial support
In short, Hariri’s resignation changed all calculations for Iran in Lebanon.
A look into the past
After a long stalemate Lebanon established a government on 18th December 2016, seeing Hariri as the prime minister and Michel Aoun as president. Lebanon’s power structure and political fabrication comprises of a Christian president, Sunni prime minister and a Shiite head of parliament.
This combination provided a major advantage for Iran, carrying out all its crimes under the cover of a legitimate Sunni government. Hezbollah is attacking its dissidents in Lebanon, under the pretext of Lebanese Army operations. This terrorist designated entity is also using Lebanon’s financial infrastructure for its own benefit.
This farce legitimacy is now coming to an end. Hariri himself said the status quo could not continue.
Concerns and reactions
Iran and Hezbollah are both sensing the dangers ahead after Hariri’s resignation. “Without a doubt this resignation has raised our concerns and we did not welcome it,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah.
Media in Iran are known to voice the general opinion of its ruling regime. “It appears that Hariri’s resignation is the operational beginning of this strategy in the region, with the ground being paved by the US Congress sanctioning [Iran] and Hezbollah,” according to the semi-official Entekhab daily.
A shot period after Hariri’s resignation, the Houthis in Yemen launched a missile targeting the King Salman International Airport near Riyadh.
“Iran has provided the capability for ballistic missile attacks launched from Yemen,” wire services reported citing Jeffrey Harrigian, commander for southwest Asia at the US Air Forces Central Command on Friday.
“What we have seen, clearly from the results of the ballistic missile attacks, that there have been Iranian markings on those missiles, that’s been demonstrated,” Harrigian added.
One can raise three possible reasons for this retaliation by Iran:
– A response to the blow received from Hariri’s resignation.
– The Houthis are suffering a series of setbacks on the ground.
– The United Nations has proposed peace plans for Yemen. The Houthis missile launch signals Iran’s response to peace and any negotiations whatsoever in Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition accused Iran of launching a “direct military aggression” and declaring war, threatening possible retaliation. Article 51 of the UN Charter entails countries the right to take defensive military action in such scenarios. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said adequate action will be taken at the proper timing.
Two air strikes targeting the defense ministry in Yemen’s militant-held capital Sanaa late Friday were carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, according to witnesses and rebel media. No casualties were reported.
Iranian military officials, however, denied any part in the Riyadh missile attack. “We don’t even have the means to transfer missiles there,” said Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) chief Mohammad Ali Jafari, understanding the consequences in this regard.
This is the very individual who threatened all US bases in the region in the case of IRGC’s designation as a terrorist organization. The US Treasury Department blacklisted the IRGC without any such response from Iran.
Furthermore, the Houthis lack the necessary industrial capacity to manufacture light weapons, let alone ballistic missiles. Iran’s Kayhan daily, known as Khamenei’s mouthpiece, printed contradictory remarks and mentioned Dubai and other sites as possible future target.
“… where shall be the next target for long-range ballistic missile: maybe Riyadh, Jaddah, Taef and ARAMCO…,” it wrote.
The ballistic missile launch is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions 2216 and 2231. UNSC Resolution 2216 bans any provision of weapons for Houthi leaders in Yemen. UNSC Resolution 2231 specifically prohibits Iran from transferring and selling weapons abroad without Security Council consent.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called for the world body to take action against Iran in response to this ballistic missile attack. Yemen lacked such hardware prior to Iran’s support and delivery of weaponry to the Houthis.
The White House condemned the Houthis missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, adding they threatened regional security and undermined efforts aimed at halting the conflict. France and the United Kingdom also condemned these measures, followed by President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Riyadh where he stressed on pressuring Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Consequences of appeasement
Iran and Houthis reaching the point of launching such an attack can be traced back to eight years of appeasement by the Obama administration. Despite the UNSC obligating the Houthis to handover heavy weaponry, pull forces out of all cities and transfer all administrational entities to the officially recognized government, no measures were carried out in this regard.
Diplomats of former US Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with the Houthis in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, yet refused to receive representatives of Yemen’s legal government. The Obama administration would foster numerous ceasefire agreements, allowing time the battered Houthis to regain their momentum.
One example of the Obama-Kerry engagement policy with Iran was witnessed when the Houthis and forces loyal to sacked Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Salah advanced south with lightning speed from Sanaa towards Aden.
On March 25, 2015, in the midst of Obama’s negotiations with Tehran, Washington issued evacuation orders to US forces stationed in a large airbase north of Aden, including transferring all weaponry and hardware to the Houthis.
Times are changing
Iran enjoyed 16 years of highly flawed US policy across the region, providing it ample time to gain ample influence in four different Arab states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
The policy adopted by the Trump administration vis-à-vis Iran is causing major concerns for Tehran. Loophole-proof implementation is now needed and signs of such measures are beginning to mushroom in Lebanon and Yemen.
Upon Saudi Arabia’s requested, the Arab League has scheduled to hold an extraordinary meeting next Sunday to weigh Iran’s regional “violations,” wire services reported. This momentum must continue abroad and rest assured Iran’s regime is sensing the growing isolation.