Yemen: Perceptions and Benefits of an Iranian Presence

4 MINS READMar 28, 2007 | 21:14 GMT
Reports from Yemen suggest Yemeni security forces have shot down an Iranian-made drone. Sanaa is likely trying to project the image that Iran is backing Zaydi rebels. Iran also would like to exploit the perception that it is seeking to project power in the region.
Yemeni forces have shot down a foreign-made drone flying over the country's southern Hadhramaut region, Yemeni authorities said March 28. Local daily Akhbar Al Yawm reported that the aircraft was Iranian-made. The development comes three weeks after a ruling General People's Congress spokesman accused certain elements within the Iranian religious establishment of backing Yemen's renegade Zaydi movement, known as the Believing Youth and led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in January that the rebels were getting funding and weapons from foreign states. The Yemeni government thus appears to be moving toward blaming Tehran for supporting the rebel movement that has left hundreds dead, mostly in northwestern Yemen's Saada governorate. Though doing so improves Sanaa's ability to deal with the rebellion and allows it to exploit the current anti-Iranian climate in the region and in the West, Iranian involvement with the Zaydis in fact is limited in scope because of certain structural hurdles. Even so, Tehran's low-level involvement does further Iran's goal of projecting power in the region. Neither Iran's Mohajer nor Ababil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have anywhere near the range to get from Iran to Yemen. If it turns out an Iranian UAV was shot down, it would have been operated from somewhere in Yemen. During its summer 2006 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah used at least two different types of UAVs (almost certainly provided by Iran). The Iranians similarly could have provided the Yemeni rebels with drones. The Zaydis form most of the 48 percent of Yemenis who practice Shiite Islam. Given their shared Shiite faith, the Zaydis present the Iranians with a potential proxy at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen's Zaydi community, however, is unlike Iran's other proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because the Zaydis practice an offshoot of mainstream Twelver Shiite Islam. Moreover, many people in the region view the Zaydis as being in many respects much closer to the Sunnis The Yemeni Zaydi rebels led by the al-Houthi tribal elders are a subset of the wider Zaydi community in Yemen. Overall, the government has significant support among the Zaydis. Furthermore, the Arab-Persian ethnic divide always serves as an arrestor to the Iranians' ambitions to align with like-minded sectarian or ideological forces in the mostly Arab Middle East. Iran thus cannot hope to create a significant fifth column in Yemen. Iran can, however, pursue the more modest goal of furthering its aspirations to be a regional hegemon by offering the renegade Zaydis support in different forms. Doing so would allow Tehran to shape perceptions of Iran's power rather than altering geopolitical reality. Given Tehran's influence throughout the so-called Shiite Crescent on Saudi Arabia's northern and eastern periphery, appearing to wield influence in Yemen allows Iran to signal the Saudis — the Iranians' principal regional rivals — that they are being encircled. The Iranians hope this will yield greater leverage in talks with the Saudis over how to share influence in the region. As for the Yemenis, accusing the Zaydis of accepting support from the Persian Shiite state allows the Saleh government to undercut support for the rebels within Yemen by painting them as an agent of a state hostile to Arabs. Such a charge should help block the rebels from spreading their cause among the wider Zaydi community. Accusing the Iranians of meddling brings the risk of raising tensions between Iran and Yemen — something the Yemenis might not want to incur. But it also helps the Yemenis gain Saudi attention, given Riyadh's desire to secure the Arabian Peninsula from Iranian/Shiite activity. It also could help Sanaa get closer to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional bloc that comprises the Persian Gulf Arab states. Though Yemen would like to use the Iranian card to extract geopolitical benefits, it does not have the resources to deal with a confrontation with Iran. Iran also is too busy for a confrontation with Yemen, and is therefore satisfied to build a perceived proxy presence in Yemen rather than the real thing. So long as neither side takes things too far, the perception of Iranian influence among the renegade Zaydis paradoxically benefits both Yemenis and Iranians.

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