Analysis - Security Studies

Sole Opponent

Fallout of Operation Decisive Storm for Iran
Sunday، March 29، 2015
Sole Opponent

The pace of events in Yemen quickened as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took over several cities and towns. They have even made advances to Aden City, which has become the temporary capital of Yemen led by the internationally recognized president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi after the Houthi takeover of Sana'a. The Houthis have rejected all initiatives calling for dialogue, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative and even sought help from Tehran which provided them with direct support including arms supplies, military experts from its elite Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

As a result, postponing a firm position to avoid this complex situation would have caused further  negative impact on Arab national security as a whole, and on the national security of  several Arab countries, namely  the Arab Gulf countries and Egypt. This threat made it necessary to decide on  military intervention to take the lead, contain the situation, curb Iran's ambitions for expansion to strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the tip of the Red Sea, as well as break the rebels' will and push them to react positively with the Gulf initiative's requirements in such a way that would lead to a permanent settlement of Yemen's crisis.

Regional and international positions: Iran is the sole opponent

Reactions of non-Arab stakeholders to Operation Decisive Storm ranged between full backing and reserved support. The U.S. supports the measure taken by Saudi Arabia and four other GCC members in support for the legitimate leadership and "legitimacy" in Yemen. President Barrack Obama reaffirmed that the collective goal of Washington and Riyadh is to achieve lasting stability in Yemen through a negotiated political solution facilitated by the United Nations and involving all parties as envisioned in the GCC Initiative.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini  said that military action is not a solution to the crisis in Yemen, and urged all regional actors to  act responsibly and constructively,  to create as a matter of urgency the conditions for a return to negotiations. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on all parties to ensure the protection of civilians and emphasized that despite escalation, negotiations remain the only option for ultimately resolving the crisis.

Pakistan's Federal Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said  that no decision to participate has been taken by his country and that Pakistan has only pledged to safeguard the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asserted that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Islamabad. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  said that Iran should withdraw from Yemen and called upon Iran to stop interference in the internal affairs of the region.

In contrast to this explicit or tacit support for the Arab military action against the rebels in Yemen, Iran, from the very start of Operation Decisive Storm, sharply criticized this action. Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described  the military intervention as a dangerous development which will destabilize the region and a military aggression that breaches  Yemen's sovereignty. Chairman of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, emphasized that this war will backfire on Saudi Arabia.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah group and Iran's proxy  for several regional issues, was quick to join Tehran in condemning what he called an aggression on Yemen, and said he was surprised how quickly Muslim and Arab powers were mobilized for Yemen but not for the Palestinian cause, which is supposed to be the central issue of Arabs and Muslims.

Dimensions and consequences of Operation Decisive Storm for Iran

The positions taken by the regional and international powers reveal that Iran seems to be the sole opponent to the Saudi-led military action against the Houthis in Yemen, because it is the only loser in Operation Decisive Storm which, in the calculations of the Iranian leaders, was not an expected move. A few observations should be outlined in this context as follows:

1. Unthinkable scenario for Iran

The tension in Iran over the ongoing military operation against its allies, the Houthi rebels, was clear in the recent statements of Iranian officials, and was caused by the surprise factor of Operation Decisive Storm and the preparations made by the participating states. This harmony between the coalition's members and the timing of the military operation were not expected by Tehran in any likely scenarios and have therefore led to this confusion in Tehran. Tehran is now focused on attempting to bring to a halt the ongoing military operation because it knows that its allies will eventually be forced by the airstrikes and the possible land forces to accept the conditions that they will be presented with for solving the crisis.

This was as an unlikely scenario for Iran which actively contributed to the disruption of negotiations between the Yemeni parties and their rejection of the GCC Initiative. Through this, Iran wants to pressure the GCC states into giving in to the conditions set by the Houthi rebels and their ally Ali Abdullah Saleh while enabling its allies to create a status quo on the ground and even to take over Aden. But this Iranian plan failed because a decision was swiftly made to launch the preemptive strikes. 

2. Thwarting Iran's expansionist ambitions at Bab el-Mandab Strait 

The main reason of the Iranian confusion is that it recognizes that it has a limited  military capability  to support its allies in Yemen, unlike the situation in Syria and Iraq, and that the Houthis, compared to Hezbollah in Lebanon, are weak and unable to hold out and resist, and as a result the Iranians will not be taken into account for negotiations in later stages. Consequently, the Iranian ambition to retain their influence in Yemen when a major regional power like Egypt is party in the military operation enforcing a tight naval blockade at the Bab el-Mandab Strait and Yemen's sea ports and, as a result, preventing Iranian arms supplies from reaching the Houthi rebels. 

3. Possible Arabs' intervention in crisis areas 

Iran has been wary of the consequences Arabs' reaction to the crisis in Yemen, and realized that they are nearing an agreement on creating a joint pan-Arab military force. This would open the door for more interventions by Arabs in other countries currently under conflicts where Iran has influence and exploits the political and security instability. More Arab interventions would mean that  Iran's influence can be neutralized and eventually reduced and that the Arabs can fill the vacuum that Iran attempted to fill in recent years because of Arabs' increasing weakness.

4. Shift in Turkey's attitude  

Iran did not expect this major shift in Turkey's position on Iranian policy. The two countries have different views on the crisis in Syria, and particularly on the issue of keeping the Syrian regime and President Bashar Assad in power, as Iran, since the breakout of the Syrian Revolution, has always sought to enforce. Despite this fact, Tehran did not expect the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Ankara has concerns over Iran's expanding influence in Iraq which Tehran is doing under the pretext of fighting ISIS (under apparent agreement on this between Iran and U.S.). In addition, Turkey has always been wary of the ability of pro-Iranian militias' to take over the Iraqi city of Mosul, and of the fact that  Washington may grant Iran further influence at the expense of Turkey's regional role. 

5. Iran's nuclear issue and the US reaction:

Iran's confusion was also caused by the US support for Operation Decisive Storm, as this support prevented the Iranians from exploiting Washington's desire to reach at least an "emergency deal" on Iran's nuclear program as the March 31st deadline is fast approaching for a preliminary deal. Iran targeted cementing the Houthi  rebels' hold on the ground so that Tehran can pressure Saudis into accepting settlements that they would have not otherwise accept, including acceptance of Iran's new regional power stature that has the biggest impact on regional developments and the  party that should be present in any negotiations on any regional  settlements. This also implies Iran's possible bargaining about the issues of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for imposing their political views and influence on the internal arenas of these states. In Syria, in particular, Iran has always sought to force Riyadh into accepting Bashar Assad as an essential party to any future settlement relating to Syria. 

That is why Iran fears that any impact on the positions of negotiating parties in the nuclear talks would  slow down these talks and thwart its efforts to reach understandings that would eventually lead to lifting the international sanctions imposed on it. The slowdown, in Iran's view, is due to the emergence of an effective Arab decision as a new factor, as well as the anticipation of international powers, particularly  the US which can pressure the other party to the nuclear talks, of a framework agreement on its nuclear program. Washington is careful not to damage its relations in the next stage with its traditional allies in the Middle East, despite the fact that the decision on the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen was made in coordination with Washington. Therefore Iran, which has always wanted to present itself as an influential party to the talks and a reliable one in the Middle East, has become  the subject of re-assessment, which would weaken its position in the negotiations or at least lead to a re-evaluation of its capabilities.

Iran will attempt to 'mix up the cards'    

In conclusion, Iran will do its best to show that what is going on in Yemen is but a sectarian war that would justify its intervention in the internal affairs of Yemen. This is  to promote its approach to the international community to lobby for international pressure on the actors taking part in the military campaign on the Houthi rebels, as well as to develop an alternative perception of the military campaign's consequences on regional stability. Iran may also seek to exploit the current situation to set conditions during the ongoing nuclear talks so as to link the continuity of negotiations with pressures by the other negotiating  parties, the US in particular, on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to stop the military operations and accept to sit at the negotiating table. The reason is that Iran attempts to prevent the total collapse of the Houthi rebels under military pressure and the shrinking chances of their participation as actors in future negotiations. This would coincide with Iran's attempts to market proposals about initiatives by major international powers as part of a strategy to mix up the cards, a game that Iran is very good at.

This makes it necessary to act swiftly to resolve the situation in Yemen politically and militarily in order to thwart any international pressures, where the majority of view now seek to go back to negotiations with the warring parties in Yemen, which can, politically, curb any military progress being made on the ground.

Keywords: IranGCCSaudi ArabiaYemenHouthisOperation Decisive Storm