Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Following the September 14 attack on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities, Kurais and Abqaiq, a debate appeared to emerge regarding the identity of its perpetrators. Initially, it seemed that the Houthi government in Yemen was behind it. A Houthi officer stood in what looked like a press conference and took responsibility for the attacks, saying that 10 drones had been used. The resulting fires, according to Saudi sources, had knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production which constituted 5 per cent of the global supply of oil.
There was good reason to accept the credibility of the Houthi claim; after all, they had succeeded in launching a drone attack in July 2018 against one of ARAMCO’s oil facilities near Riyadh. A month later, the Houthis launched another drone attack on the Shaybah oil complex, located in the Saudi Empty Quarter, close to the UAE border. They proved their ability to strike deep into the Saudi Kingdom.
Despite this recent history, the US expressed skepticism that the Houthis were working alone. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put the blame squarely on Iran. For years now, Iranian fingerprints have been evident everywhere in the Yemen conflict. In 2014, the Yemeni government freed three members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who had been detained for training the Houthis. A year earlier during 2013, pro-Iranian Yemenis had been imprisoned for smuggling Iranian weapons to Yemen aboard an Iranian ship, the Jihan 1.
It may be said that Iran had been involved in a proxy war in Yemen for several years now in which it supplied weapons and training to one side in lieu of using its own troops on the ground. As long as Iran limited itself to a proxy war using a surrogate force against Saudi Arabia, the risks of retaliation on Iranian territory were limited. The real question that emerges is, why was Iran escalating now and getting involved in the Yemen War more directly than ever?
The Houthis did not look like the ideal partners of Iran. They are a clan from Northwestern Yemen that practice a heterodox form of Shiite Islam. Most Shiites, like those in Iran, revere the descendants of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad as his rightful successor. They especially stress the importance of the twelfth descendant of Ali, anticipating his return as a kind of Messianic figure. The Houthis, however, belong to a branch of Shiism that considers the fifth descendant of Ali to be the appointed figure who inspires their movement; for this reason these Yemeni Shiites are known as “Fivers” or sometimes Zaydis, since the Fifth Imam was named Zayd.
But geopolitics is as much a factor in Iranian considerations as theology. Iran has established itself already as the dominant power around the Strait of Hormuz, the naval chokepoint affecting the movement of ships from the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean. The Yemen War is giving Iran a position along a second choke point, Bab al-Mandab, controlling movement of ships from the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, the collapse of Syria has given Iran the option of penetrating the Middle East from another end; for that reason while it expands its influence in Yemen, Tehran is constructing a land bridge from its border with Iraq, across Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.
Iran’s regional role has been increasing across the Middle East. Examples of Iranian activism elsewhere also increased. Iran began to network with the Polisario through Algeria providing weapons and training. For that reason in May 2018, Morocco cut off diplomatic relations with Iran. On the other side of the Middle East, an Iranian-supported organization, known as the Al-Ashtar Brigades, claimed responsibility for bombing on November 10, 2017, a strategic oil pipeline connecting Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Bahrain.
This was not the way Iran was supposed to turn out, according to the proponents of the Iran nuclear deal. During the debate over the deal, an argument was advanced that the regime in Tehran was moving in the direction of greater moderation, as demonstrated by the election of Hasan Rohani as Iran’s president. Ben Rhodes, who served on the National Security Council at that time, described this thesis in The New York Times Magazine. The Iran deal, he argued, was supposed to entrench this purported trend in Iranian foreign policy. The only problem with the Iranian moderation argument was that it was not true. In 2015, the year that the Iran deal was concluded, the Iranian role in Yemen mushroomed. That year was when Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, fell to the Houthis.
So why has Iran’s proxy war evolved into direct action against Saudi Arabia? No one stopped Iranian escalation in recent years. By comparison, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s, Western shipping came under attack in the Persian Gulf, including oil tankers. After a period of restraint, the US unleashed its military strength, sinking or damaging half of Iran’s operational navy. As a result, the US bought quiet for a number of years. But thirty years have passed since then. Unless Western deterrence of Iran is restored, Iranian expansionism is only likely to get worse.