Will Iran respond to Saudi offense in Yemen?

Saudi Arabia's airstrikes against Houthis in Yemen come as a last resort, since Houthis have refused all dialogue.

al-monitor Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition forces, speaks to the media next to a replica of a Tornado fighter jet, at the Riyadh airbase in the Saudi capital, March 26, 2015. Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

yemen, war, saudi arabia, proxy wars, iran, houthis

Mar 27, 2015

Saudi Arabia could no longer tolerate the violations of Houthis in Yemen. For a year, Saudi Arabia has been monitoring and encouraging political dialogue, while Houthis were advancing militarily and exerting pressure on Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to achieve political goals under a stark Iranian cover.

Saudi Arabia had enough. Without prior notice, it mounted a military operation, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, against Houthis in Yemen, backed by Gulf countries, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt. The world stood in shock following the unexpected military offense. All eyes are now on Houthis falling under the strikes of Saudi Arabia, while Iran witnesses on screens its project in Yemen falling, amid a series questions: What has led Saudi Arabia to launch the operation? Will Iran respond militarily? What impact will this military operation have on the region and the nuclear program?

Houthis against political solution

In an interview with An-Nahar, Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst, said that Saudi Arabia remained silent about Yemen’s developments for a year. "Since 2014, Houthis began military expansion from Saada, moving to the south. They controlled Dammaj, Amran and then the capital Sanaa, and imposed a political solution on the president, who agreed. After that, they imposed assignments in the government and the army, and the president agreed. Back then, Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries announced their approval of the agreement of peace and partnership that was signed after Houthis took control of Sanaa."

Dakhil added, "Saudi Arabia was accused back then of being defeatist, giving up on its allies. Saudi Arabia, however, wanted to support a political solution, and waited for Houthis to commit to the political agreements concluded within a Gulf initiative."

What happened then?

According to Dakhil, a year following the Yemeni crisis, Saudi Arabia realized that "Houthis do not want a political solution. They wish to completely control Yemen and alienate other powers. They were implementing the project with Iranian support and encouragement." According to Dakhil, the "Saudi action came a year late."

Operation Decisive Storm conveys a clear political message to Houthis. "It was imperative to convince Houthis with a simple truth: Since the North Yemen Civil War of 1962, there has been no party able to unilaterally rule the country. History proves this truth and shows that monopoly leads to complications. Today, Houthis are pushing toward a civil war," Dakhil said.

No involvement in Syria

Supporters of Operation Decisive Storm were overwhelmed with feelings of Arabism. Many wished for a similar operation in Syria. Dakhil, however, affirmed that this is not a "viable option." He noted that Saudi Arabia supports the Syrian opposition, however, any military involvement in Syria would be different. Dakhil said, "There are no direct borders between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Borders are with Jordan. Therefore, any military engagement will require the approval of Jordan and the coordination of a neighboring state like Turkey, especially amid the chaos characterizing Iraq. Saudi Arabia shares more than 1,500 kilometers [932 miles] of borders with Yemen, but in the case of Syria, Saudi airplanes will need authorization to fly to Syria. Therefore, the option is not possible and requires international approvals and discussions."

Dakhil said, "What is happening in Yemen affirms that Saudi Arabia is not drawn toward military action in any place. However, Houthis were destroying Yemen. Saudi Arabia was trying to contain them and convince them to give up on military disorder. The Houthis are behind today's developments. An extended war is not an easy thing."

Impact on Iraq and Syria

The operation will impact the region, mainly Syria and Iraq. Dakhil reiterated that Operation Decisive Storm was an attempt to prevent Iranians from using Yemen to pressure Saudi Arabia in Iraq and Syria. This operation would also convince the Iranians that military interference and attempts to foment strife in the region would be an exercise in futility. "At the end of the day, Iran will not be able to win the Arab world in the long term," Dakhil said, noting, "There are many large obstacles between Arabs and Iranians, including ethnicity, sects and history. Currently, Iran can win temporarily, as is happening in Syria. But in the end, it will lose. Unfortunately, Iran did not become aware of this truth until it was too late."

Dakhil does not deny that the military operation will affect nuclear negotiations and strengthen the US stance in negotiations. The Americans will find out that Iranians use negotiations to cover their practices in the region.

Is there any concern about an Iranian response in Syria? "I do not think Iran will respond, especially since its air force is weak, and large surface areas separate it from Syria. It cannot directly intervene through its air force because such an engagement will adversely affect the nuclear negotiations with the US," Dakhil replied.

Iran losing itself

Houthis are relying on an Iranian response. Ali al-Bakhti, a former leader of the Houthi group, believes that "a regional war is in the making." He refuses to pass judgments on the Iranian reaction, saying, "What is needed from Iran now is to wage a war. We do not ask for anything specific. We are a resistance army and all resistance countries in the Middle East — in addition to Russia and China — should have clear stances and be on our side. If Iran abandons us, it will be losing itself." He said, "Yemenis, with their history and civilization, can defend themselves."

Have Houthis not attempted to control Yemen militarily and politically? He replied, “The September 21 revolution ended by ousting traitors who drained Yemen for 50 years, [in collaboration with] the Gulf and West. Despite this, we did not announce the formation of the government or the name of the president. We waited for the participation of all parties. This shows that we support partnership and we take into consideration all political powers. Saudi Arabia, however, refuses to engage other powers, as it fears Yemen will be out of its control and will be inclined toward Iran."

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