Now that former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh is dead, Iran’s direct support for the Houthis can grow in importance in the coming months.
The death of the former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh, reported by the rival factions that have been combatting in the capital Sana’a, came as a shock to public opinion around the world.
Saleh became president of what was then North Yemen in 1978. Though he stepped down as president of united Yemen in 2012, he remained a key player in the tragic conflict in the country. Surprisingly, he survived many assassination attempts, coups and plots. However, last Monday, Houthi fighters killed Saleh as he attempted to flee the capital to his hometown of Sanhan. The incident happened nearly three years after Houthi rebels captured Sana’a with the help of forces loyal to the ex-president. The two sides have fought deadly street battles this past week in Sana’a which has killed around 60 people. On Saturday, Saleh had reached out to the Saudis battling the Houthis, offering them to “turn the page” if they accepted to lift a crippling blockade on the country.
One way or another, Saleh’s assassination does not put an end to the conflict in Yemen which has been going on since 2011. Inspired by regional uprisings in what was known as the Arab Spring, Yemenis took to the streets in early 2011 to demand the departure of Saleh, who had ruled Yemen with an iron fist since 1978. After 11 months of protests and deadly clashes, Saleh agreed in November 2011 to hand over his power in exchange for immunity from prosecution for him and his family. As a result, presidential elections were held in February 2012 and Saleh’s deputy and only candidate Mansour Hadi, seen as a man of consensus, was sworn in few days later. But the Shia minority who felt marginalised after Saleh’s departure rejected the new constitution and tensions intensified between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. Backed by Iran, the Houthi rebels launched an offensive in 2014 and pushed towards Sana’a from their northern stronghold of Sa’dah.
On September 21, 2014, the Houthis stormed the capital and seized the government headquarters, state radio and military sites after days of clashes, killing more than 270. By January 2015, the rebels and their allies also took control of the presidential palace forcing Hadi to escape to Yemen’s second city, Aden. But on March 26, 2015, nine regional countries in a Sunni Saudi-led coalition launched operation ‘Decisive Storm’ with air strikes on the rebels to defend embattled Hadi and his government. In the following months, there were splits in the rebel camp, with the Houthis calling Saleh a traitor after he dismissed the Houthi rebels as an Iran-backed “militia”.
On December 3, Houthi rebels in Yemen announced that they had fired a “winged cruise missile” at the construction site for al-Barakah nuclear power plant, located 230 km southwest of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. UAE military authorities dismissed the claim, asserting that no strike was launched in their direction and that any missile would have been intercepted by their defenses if it had entered Emirati airspace. Yet the Houthi-affiliated television channel Al Masirah later showed footage of a cigar-shaped missile with a strap-on jet engine and booster rocket launched from what seemed to be a mobile platform. The launch apparently failed, according to social media reports. Since the missile resembled the shape of a Soumar cruise missile (Tehran’s copy of the Russian Kh-55), everyone is once again raising questions about Iran’s relationship with the Houthis. Now that Saleh is dead, Iran’s direct support for the Houthis can grow in importance in the coming months.
Saleh’s death brings to mind the recent events in the Middle East and the obsession with Iran’s growing power and influence in the region. It is a pity that at a time when Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud is supposed to bring Saudi Islam back to “moderation”, and to fight “Islamist extremists”, there is no apparent will from US President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin to find a solution to the problems in the Middle East. Siding with Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and arch-foe Israel, the Trump administration has incessantly accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) of creating instability in the region by test firing long-range missiles and trying to increase influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon by supporting militias. However, strangely, even after Saleh’s death and the unexpected events in Yemen, the US administration has not shown much of sensitivity with regard to Iran’s economic activities and trade deals with other countries, including India. So far, India has received the go-ahead from the US with regards to its economic activities in Chabahar. In a recent visit to India, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underlined that his country does not want to “interfere with legitimate business” done with Iran, “whether they be from Europe, India or agreements that are in place or promote economic development and activity to the benefit of our friends and allies”. This means that despite the US opposition to the Iran deal, the success of Chabahar and other post-sanctions deals with Iran are also contributing to the internationally significant role of Iran. Assuredly, beyond Yemen, Iran must be viewed as a key player who, as a major energy producing with a young and dynamic market, has a stake in regional stability and ensuring the secure flow of energy, goods and people in and out of the Gulf region.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.