November 21, 2009

Perspective on Yemen's recent violence

The recent violence in Yemen, which has included a fairly substantial Saudi military cross-border operation, should not be confused with al-Qa'idah operations on the Arabian Peninsula. It is true that there are many al-Qa'idah operatives in Yemen - they have relocated to the weakly-governed country from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, the group operating on the Saudi border are not al-Qa'idah - in fact, they are radically different. Bad guys, to be sure, just not of the al-Qa'idah ilk.

These are the Huthis, named for the now-dead leader of the group, Husayn Badr al-Din al-Huthi. This group first appeared in 2004 when they began a series of protests against the government in Sana' for its cooperation (little as its has been) with the United States in the war on terror. Al-Huthi was killed in the initial uprising.

What is unique about the Huthis is that they are Shi'a Muslims. Most of the population of Yemen are Sunnis, as are virtually all members of al-Qa'idah. There is no apparent cooperation between the Huthis and al-Qa'idah. However, there are indications that the Huthis are being supported by another terrorist organization - the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In late October, Yemen claims to have intercepted a ship carrying Iranian weapons to the Huthis. This makes sense - the Iranians are noted for supporting Shi'a groups - Hizballah is the prime example.

It should be noted that the Huthis follow a different Shi'a tradition than the Iranians. Iranians are overwhelmingly "Twelver" Shi'a, in other words, they believe in the succession of Muhammad through 12 imams. The Huthis are Zaydis, sometimes referred to "Fiver" Shi'a since they believe in the succession of Muhammad through the first five imams. The fifth imam was Zayd ibn 'Ali (hence the descriptor "Zaydi"), the great great grandson of the prophet Muhammad - most Zaydis live in Yemen.

That said, it is plausible for the Iranians to be assisting the Huthis. Wherever there are Shi'a militants, there seems to be Iranian support. The Yemeni government has accused the Iranians of providing weapons to the group via Eritrea, as well as moving Hizballah militants from Lebanon. Last week, Iran announced that it was deploying warships to the Gulf of Aden supposedly to join in the fight against Somali pirates operating in the region. One could make the case that they are actually there to support the Huthis.

Realistically, what do the mullahs in Tehran hope to gain by supporting the Huthis in Yemen? Are they hoping to create a Shi'a state on the Arabian Peninsula? Are they hoping to overthrow the government of 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih? Perhaps they want to lessen Salih's alleged (I use that word for a reason) cooperation with the United States in the war on terror?

None of those are the primary reason for Iranian interference in Yemeni affairs. It has to do with Yemen's neighbor to the north, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia have longstanding animosity on several levels. Both nations sit astride the Persian Gulf - Saudi Arabia to the west, Iran to the east. The Iranians, who are mostly ethnic Persians, believe it is called the "Persian" Gulf for a reason. In contrast, the Arabs refer to it as the Arab Gulf, and it is written that way on maps printed in the Arab world. Most of us who have to deal with the Arabs simply refer to it as al-khalij - "The Gulf."

The Huthis have been active along the Saudi border, at times crossing into Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have reacted militarily, moving warships into the Red Sea to interdict the arms route from Eritrea. They have also conducted air strikes into northern Yemen and moved ground forces into the area. They have pledged to continue their military operations against the Huthis until the Huthis withdraw from a 10-kilometer security strip inside Yemen. At least six Saudi soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

If Iran is in fact supporting the Huthis as the Yemeni government claims, it may be trying to cause problems for Saudi Arabia. This comes at a time when the world is beginning to seriously focus on Iran's nuclear program. It may be an attempt to divert some attention from that issue, or it may be an attempt to convince Saudi Arabia not to support the American position on that issue.

Bottom line: It won't work. Many people care about the Iranian nuclear issue. Few people care about a group of Shi'a rebels in the mountains of Yemen.