November 12, 2009

A Proxy War in Yemen?

The protracted conflict in Northern Yemen has become “a bit” more complicated – sarcasm intended – with Saudi Arabia joining the fray in attempting to destroy the Houthi rebels. However, what has become the source of serious debate is not so much the heavy fighting that is most likely taking and displacing so many lives, but whether Iran – according to both the Saudi and Yemeni government – is actually supporting the Houthi rebellion.
A recent article by Scott Peterson suggests that an Iranian-Houthi connection is more fiction than fact, and posits that such hyperbole distracts from the Houthis’ actual claims of mistreatment by the Yemeni government. As the article points out:

“Iran’s influence may be marginal. ‘There is probably next to no Iranian involvement. I have seen no evidence for it [and] it’s really a bit too far afield,’ says Joost Hiltermann, the deputy Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Washington.
A Saudi source…told Agence France-Presse that there was no evidence of active Iranian involvement in the Yemen conflict.
This gets played off as Sunni-Shia, and it’s wrong,” says Hiltermann of ICG. ‘The Shia of Yemen are more Sunni than any other Shia in the world. And the Sunni of Yemen are more Shia than any Sunni in the world.’”

Hiltermann’s observation of Saudi and Yemeni spin to play this off as a conflict of religions between state actors, undermines the grievances that the Houthis are actually fighting for. The Houthi are predominantly the “Fiver” sect of Shi’a Islam, meaning they believe in the first four Imams (contending on the fifth Imam), as opposed to the “Twelver” sect, which is the state sanctioned religion of the Islamic Republic.
Lewis Coser – a luminary on the study of social conflict – suggests groups that tend to be close in nature, yet deviate on certain core values have the potential to undermine the social identity of the initial group, resulting in very violent persecution of that group the closer they are in philosophy or ideology. Therefore, as the well known and well documented rifts in Sunni-Shia relations have fomented violent conflict, cohesion between two schools of Shia Islam – with one, as Hiltermann posits, “closer in nature to Sunnism” – is far more unlikely.
However, Iran’s desire to be a regional hegemon is well known and a contributing factor to its pursuit of nuclear technology. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Iran would offer to mediate the conflict, suggesting that it could be a “beacon of peacebuilding,” even though there is zero chance of the Saudis accepting the offer.  So in the end, Iran looks magnanimous and doesn’t even have to do anything.

“‘I think the Iranians are laughing. They want to [anger] the Saudis, no question,’ says Mr. Hiltermann, noting that Saudi Arabia [and Yemen] would ‘never accept Iran’s offer to help bring stability, which would be seen in Riyadh as “provocative.’
‘The Iranians are just brilliant,’ he adds. ‘[They play] no role whatsoever, but they get all the credit, and so they are capitalizing on it.’”

So it seems that Iran is making a sorry attempt to imitate Obama-esque approaches to international issues, by using diplomacy to play the role of “peacebuilder.”  However, somebody should point out Iran’s hypocrisy here: it can’t act like it’s an expert at conflict negotiation when it can’t even form an agreement on the P5+1 nuclear proposal, much less acknowledge its gross human rights violations.

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