• World

Yemen’s Hidden War: Is Iran Causing Trouble?

6 minute read
Abigail Hauslohner / Sana'a

The Yemeni capital of Sana’a thunders at night with the sound of war planes taking off and heading north, toward a remote conflict on the Saudi border that the Yemenis and Saudis have stealthily managed to keep off-limits to journalists and aid workers. In the lawless frontier zone of Saada governorate, a fierce battle has raged for months between Yemeni troops and rebels belonging to the Houthis, a religious minority. Each side — Houthis on one, Yemenis and Saudis on the other — has offered conflicting reports on everything from air strikes to motives, and with Saada a no-go zone, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.

There are as yet unsubstantiated reports of massive human rights abuses, village bombardments and foreign involvement. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees are pouring out of the frontlines, making the hidden conflict increasingly impossible to keep out of the international spotlight.

(See why Yemen might be the next Afghanistan.)

The Houthis says their quest for cultural and religious rights since 2004 intensified in August, when the government responded by razing villages in an assault the Yemenis called “Operation Scorched Earth.” Yemen and Saudi Arabia say the Houthis, part of a Shi’ite Muslim sect known as the Zaydis, are receiving their funding, weapons and training from Iran in a bid to destabilize the region.

(See pictures of the hidden war in Yemen.)

Destabilizing is right on one count. Yemen is already reeling under the converging crises of lawlessness, growing poverty, a water crisis, a looming al-Qaeda threat, a southern separatist movement, and oil reserves that are quickly running dry. Indeed, analysts cite this multiplicity of factors as presaging Yemen as a failed state. “I think the major challenge for Yemen is really economic development,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubaker Abdullah Al-Qirbi told TIME. “It could be a failed state in some aspects, certainly, if it doesn’t get the support it needs.”

With the current war raging, Yemen is getting a lot of support (though how much is unclear) from its larger wealthier neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which joined the fight last month. Separately, President Barack Obama recently requested $65 million for Yemen to help battle terrorism and al-Qaeda.

But the conflict up north — and the resources it’s consuming — may be undermining efforts to deal with Yemen’s other troubles. Nor is it certain that Iran is actually involved in the conflict. “There just isn’t any evidence,” says Gary Sick, a Persian Gulf expert at Columbia University. He says that waving the Iran card is a useful propaganda ploy in the Arab Middle East. “Although they may have had some evidence of Iranian rhetorical support for the Houthis, I think they took advantage of that limited amount of evidence and blew it up into something bigger to, in effect, justify their own actions.”

(See 25 people who mattered in 2009.)

“The Iranians basically were happy to take credit for it because they like to be seen as the protector for Shi’a as well as Muslims all over the world,” Sick adds. “[But] it’s not at all clear that the Iranians are doing anything more than just being cheerleaders on the side.”

Indeed, while Iran has been publicly linked to militant groups Hizballah and Hamas, as well as Shi’ite militias in Iraq, its Houthi link is tenuous. Zaydi Shi’ism is distinct from the “Twelver” Shi’ism practiced in Iran, and Houthi demands have centered on rights and resources, something Princeton University Yemen expert Gregory Johnson says is rooted in Houthi feelings of marginalization following the 1962 Yemeni revolution. Observers are also quick to point out that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is himself a Zaydi.

Some point more cynically to a Saudi agenda lurking behind it all. The Saudis, Yemen’s largest source of annual aid, were suspiciously quick to join the fight, says Ali Saif Hassan, the director of Yemen’s Political Development Forum. The Saudis are troubled by Yemen’s increasing lawlessness, its porous border, and the ability of local villagers to cross at will. “Now because of this war, they will have a chance to make a fence. And more than that, they will have a chance to clear the area on their side, take all of the villages off and make it a free, smooth area that they can control,” he says. Indeed, the Saudis are already enforcing a 10 km-deep buffer zone inside the Yemeni border.

(See TIME’s tribute to people who passed away in 2009.)

But if the war against the Houthis isn’t the grand regional proxy war that Yemen and Saudi Arabia are alleging, regional analysts say it could very well become one if the key players keep crying wolf. “One of the things that the Yemeni government has gotten particularly skilled at doing over the past several years is linking their own domestic crises to larger regional and western concerns,” says Johnson, noting that at other times Yemen has attempted to link the Houthis and al-Qaeda, a militant Sunni group that has openly targeted Shi’ites in other contexts, such as Iraq. “I think a large concern now is, given the sniping back and forth between Iran and Saudi Arabia, that Yemen’s continual crying of wolf in this might be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that certainly Iran is now supporting the Houthis through their media branch,” says Johnson.

Meanwhile, a northern bombardment that may have initially been intended to serve as a warning to other defectors, such as the southern separatists, seems only to have demonstrated the government’s weakness, and has done little to end the Houthis’ rebellion. “The longer this war goes on, the more vulnerable and the weaker the central government looks,” says Christopher Boucek, a Middle East associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The government has such a limited capacity that they can only deal with one problem at a time,” says Boucek. “They’re not focused on the big picture issues that the United States cares about like counter-terrorism or security or al-Qaeda.”

Instead, with Saada in central focus, the Yemeni government is spending its dwindling funds at an alarming rate. Yemen’s budget deficit is rising, and the conflict has become increasingly complex and far-reaching, with tribes that had not previously been involved joining the fight on each side.

As for Iran — the only party that doesn’t seem to have any real involvement just yet — the time may soon be ripe to jump in.

See the best pictures of 2009.

See pictures of Person of the Year 2009 runner-up General Stanley McChrystal.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com