Sheila Carapico | Professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond, author of Civil Society in Yemen: The Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and editor of Arabia Incognita: Dispatches From Yemen and the Gulf (Just World Books, 2016)
After the Houthi rebels—then in partnership with their old foe, the deposed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh—stormed San‘a in 2014, flights bearing what Tehran called humanitarian relief increased. Incensed that Tehran might gain influence in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia bombed the runways of San‘a airport, limiting Iranian and indeed all foreign access to most of Yemen.
Otherwise, the Saudi obsession with Iranian interference, coupled with the coalition’s indiscriminate bombing and the cruel embargo on Red Sea ports, has had the opposite effect. Previously, Yemeni Zaydis did not identify as Shi‘a, Iranians did not visit Yemen, and many Yemenis did not visit Iran. Even communications via telephone, the internet, or broadcasting were, and remain, minimal. Four years of Saudi-led bombardment in the name of combatting Iran, however, has led many Yemenis to regard Iran as an ally.
Ahmed Salah Hashim | Associate professor in the Military Studies Program at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore
No, and that is not simply because there was and continues to be little Iranian influence in Yemen. It has become de rigueur for the United States and its allies in the Middle East to blame Iran for everything untoward that happens in the region. If anything, the Arab coalition’s invasion of Yemen in 2015, an action undertaken with considerable confidence by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has actually heightened Iranian influence with, and presence in, that hapless country. Many myths and half-truths have been converted into accepted fact. Iran has traditionally had little influence or traction in Yemen. For Iran, Yemen is not on a par with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Tehran’s relationship with the Houthis is not deep, as it is not ideological or theological. It is a myth that the Zaydi Houthis are Shi‘a. Moreover, Iran does not merely support Shi‘a groups in the formulation and execution of its foreign and national security policies. It has lent support to Sunni militant groups such as Hamas and the Taliban.
The war in Yemen, which the coalition undertook for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which was the obvious fact of runaway Houthi victories, has actually provided Iran with the ability to support a low-cost war against two of its bitterest foes, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Houthis are formidable fighters and in the north they have run circles around the Saudis. The Iranians, though, are not going to make Yemen a litmus test of their national security in the region, although they have not ignored Yemen’s strategic location. They do not see Saudi Arabia or the UAE as benefiting from their adventures, since Yemen will remain a failed state with a multiplicity of competing militias, extremist groups, proxies, and regional factions.
Dina Esfandiary | Fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and Security Studies, Harvard University, fellow at the Century Foundation
In short, no. Iran’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen is a low-cost, high-benefit endeavor. It is an easy way to be a nuisance to Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. At the start of the conflict, Tehran had a relatively limited relationship with the Houthis, whose grievances are real, legitimate, and very much local. As the conflict progressed, Tehran’s support for the Houthis increased, but it still would not deploy its elite forces as it did in both Iraq and Syria. That is because Yemen is not a strategic priority for Iran. Economic, political, and religious interests, and the long border between the two countries, has made Iraq a first order priority for Iran. Syria and Lebanon allow Iran to extend its influence all the way to the Mediterranean and give it access to its regional proxies. What’s more, Iran invested significantly in the war in Syria and cannot simply walk away without reaping some of the postwar reconstruction benefits.
In short, Yemen is a peripheral issue for Iran. It is useful for Tehran to be involved in Yemen simply because the country is a high priority issue for Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors, and an easy lever for Tehran to play with to weaken its regional rivals. The more the Saudi-led coalition doubles down in Yemen, the more Iran increases its influence and feels victorious.
Yasmine Farouk | Visiting scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Program
Not really. The Saudi-led coalition may have complicated Iran’s military support for the Houthis. However, it policy in Yemen has also inflated Iran’s political influence in the country in three ways. First, Saudi Arabia couldn’t stop Iran’s influence from spreading because it prioritized efforts to eliminate Iranian influence over addressing the root Yemeni causes that allowed the Houthis to gain ground in the first place. Second, the coalition helped reinforce the Houthis’ ties with Iran and its Arab Shi‘a proxies by forming an intense sectarian and military alliance rather than a strategic and political one. Third, the military campaign’s humanitarian consequences, followed by the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its repercussions, led to international condemnation, while Iran remained in a more comfortable position because of its ambiguity in Yemen. Those three consequences can still be mitigated as Iran doesn’t control the Houthis. The coalition has more means to influence Yemen than Iran does, and it can still use them.