How is Iran Doing in Yemen?

The middle of this month saw a major GCC victory in its war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.  It began with the largely-symbolic seizure of a small island called Perim by tribal militia backed by Saudi forces.  It was only Perim’s position astride the trade routes’ entrance to the Red Sea that made it of particular importance, as its volcanic rock holds no oil and its major industry is shark-fishing.  Seizing it denied the Houthis — and by extension, Iran — any territorial claims that would permit the closure of the trade routes in the region.  This was part of an effort by the Saudis to recapture control of the Bab al Mandab strait entirely.  Though Houthi rebels have been contesting the Saudi navy’s control of the strait with anti-ship missile attacks launched from shore, it is unclear if any of the three claimed attacks have been effective.

The closing of the strait ironically also cut off a major supply line for Iranian arms, which have often not been coming from Iran directly but via Iranian allies in Africa.  Between an unexpectedly strong Saudi-led GCC air support to their enemies and the pressure on their supply lines, the Houthis became increasingly open to pursuing a political solution to the conflict.  By 6 October they had accepted in principle a United Nations-backed peace plan for negotiation, and by the 10th, with the fall of Perim, they appeared backed into a corner.  Their garrison on Perim fought to the death rather than surrender to Saudi-backed militias, but in the end even that level of commitment was insufficient to hold out.  Iran’s ability to support them has also been compromised by its over-extension in Syria and elsewhere.

Iran must regard the current state of play as unsatisfactory.  In addition to these strategic problems, it lost “a group of senior Iranian and Houthi commanders” to a Saudi-led airstrike on the 23rd of this month.  Houthi forces in the southwest are under increasing pressure.  The shift to pursuing a diplomatic solution is a mark of Iranian weakness at this phase.

However, the diplomatic phase may be advantageous to Iran in unexpected ways.  An important component of the GCC air campaign is quiet US support.  That support is beginning to come under political fire here at home:

Over the past six months, the Obama administration has quietly embroiled the U.S. in a Middle Eastern war that has left more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid and killed at least 5,000.

U.S.-backed Sunni Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, have bombed weddings, left families to starve and looked the other way as an al Qaeda affiliate has used the confusion to seize significant territory. Civilian casualties are growing daily.

The White House won’t admit that the U.S. is even “in” Yemen. But it’s refueling the planes bombing the country and providing intelligence to the Sunni states running the Yemen campaign. Now lawmakers, dissenters within the administration and human rights activists are ramping up their criticisms of the Obama policy.

The Obama administration is using this essential but limited support to shore up confidence among its Sunni allies in the wake of its disastrous Iran nuclear deal.  As Iran joins the panel considering the outcome of the Syrian war, where GCC nations including Saudi Arabia and Qatar already sit, the Yemeni conflict will be very much in the background.  There will be opportunities for all of these nations to leverage one front against the other, and for Iran to gain cooperation from the GCC nations that it could not otherwise obtain.  This is especially true in Yemen, where it is currently in a losing position.

For one thing, the Obama administration has decided it needs Iranian support to resolve the high-profile conflict in Syria, which is a necessary condition for pursuing its problems with ISIS in Iraq.  Iranian cooperation in Iraq is likely to be essential as well, given the administration’s desire to maintain US combat forces to a minimum there, and Iran’s success in replacing the Iraqi Army as an effective fighting force with Shi’a militias loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader and his ideology.

Iran can count upon significant diplomatic support from Russia.  Russia has a lot of prestige wrapped up in its commitments in Syria, but is reliant on Iranian-led militias for much of its actionable intelligence.  Without that intelligence, air strikes are of limited effectiveness against an insurgency.  The two of them are allies of necessity as well as of convenience, therefore, and will likely play to each others’ advantages.

Iran can push the United States for a satisfactory outcome in Yemen as a ‘good faith’ demonstration before appearing to yield anything on Syria or Iraq.  With Russian diplomacy backing them, they may be able to get the Obama administration to surrender on support to the GCC air campaign under the guise of giving in to domestic opposition.  Indeed, they may even be able to get the Obama administration to use the possibility of withdrawing support to leverage the GCC countries into accepting a settlement in Yemen far more advantageous to Iran than anything it could now hope to win on the battlefield.  The Obama administration might be only too happy to close off a war in Yemen that is causing it political difficulties at home, in exchange for the hope of Iranian/Russian cooperation on the more significant war to the north.  Whether such cooperation would actually be forthcoming depends on the quality of our negotiators.

Alternatively, Iran can trade Yemeni setbacks for concessions by the United States in the Levant.  As the Obama administration is already using Yemen to repair relations with the GCC countries, the American State Department is already in the mode of making concessions to Iran in the north and covering them with support for the GCC in the south.  In this mode, Iran can capitalize on a losing situation by using it as a stalking horse for gains in the more significant game in the Levant.