Yemen – Europe in dismay. Iran knows the limits, Saudi Arabia doesn’t (HFEZ)

by D.R. HAFEZ – 28th April 2015

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The recent events in Yemen are worrying, very worrying. For one, Yemen is a strategically placed powder keg that could contaminate an already explosive region. Secondly, never has the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia been so visibly close to Riyadh – for a country that has in the non-too distant past sponsored in one way or another a very aggressive form of Sunni Islam (think Afghanistan in the 1980s, think Iraq and Syria more recently), to have the hated Shia enemy so close to its borders must be frightening. However, this conflict will not, and cannot be blown out of proportions – the very stability of the region depends on it.

The Yemeni quagmire is too complex for outside forces to take full advantage of the situation.

The situation in Yemen is far from simple: alongside the usual religious fault lines, tribal divides and political rivalries create a situation that is unreadable and at the very least very unpredictable, even to the expert eye. Add in an (un)healthy dose of weaponry, difficult terrain, a loathing of outside intervention, and couple it with the geostrategic importance of Yemen (Arabian Peninsula and choke-point of the Aden straights) and one obtains a situation in which any conflict should be treated with rather more concern than a simple drone campaign of assassination and the odd declaration of Sanaa’s architectural worth. The reality that Yemen has been a thorn in the Saudi Arabian side, and has even functioned as a haven for Sunni extremism rebelling against the Wahhabi (also Sunni and very rigorous) regime is no longer news. However, the fact that Houthis now seem to gain momentum in the country must be worrying for the Sunni neighbours up North. Saudi Arabia is faced with a cynical choice – AQAP or a Shia sect? Their bombing campaign has shown up their true agenda – forget AQAP and its murderous cousins in the Sahel or even affiliated groups in Iraq and Syria – sectarian Shia-Sunni violence must be prioritized, even though the inevitable result will be an even murkier and chaotic situation.

Taunting and standing up to Saudi Arabia, why not…..

From an Iranian point of view, dishing out fear to Saudi Arabia through an indirect/direct help given to the fiver-branch of Shi’ism must seem deliciously tempting. After all, the tension between the two countries is evident – from oil prices to the sponsoring of extremist groups on each other’s doorstep, it seems that the Middle East is now to be read increasingly in light of the furious confrontation between the symbols of Sunni and Shia Islam. It is also true that, when it comes to agitating Persian or Shi’a diasporas abroad (think Bahrain or Iraq), Iran is well used to utilising the dark arts. It is also true that the destabilisation of Saudi Arabia in this way (to a certain degree) could temporarily advantage Iran.

But why soil a newly acquired suit?

However, Iran itself has only a limited geostrategic interest in stirring up unrest, chaos and violence in the region. For starters, though the destabilisation of Saudi Arabia could temporarily sway the balance of power in Teheran’s favour, as history has shown, creating Frankenstein can have grave consequences for its former master – Afghanistan, Iraq, are good examples. Secondly, chaos in the region is detrimental to the prosperity of the countries all around, including on the other side of the Hormuz Straights. Lastly, and more importantly, Iran is currently in the process of endorsing a new regional role – whether it be the nuclear talks in Lausanne, the positive PR campaign of the al-Quds brigades in Syria (that serve to mask its ugly involvement in the Syrian civil war against Bachar al-Assad’s regime) or even its perceived growing influence in Lebanon, Teheran would be mad to give the slightest excuse to its numerous enemies (conservative Americans being one group among them) to halt its celebratory and victorious march back in from the cold. To put it simply, Iran has too much to lose by stoking the flames in an obvious and large-scale manner. In that regard, the US decision to send in the USS Theodore Roosevelt off the Yemeni coastal waters serves as a visible (and formidable) reminder that Iran’s new-found international acceptance is still built on very shaky soil.

Europe – lack of political clout does not mean lack of opportunities.

As has been argued before in previous articles, even the most Europhile of analysts would be hard pressed to proclaim the EU’s foreign policy stance and actions as proof of Europe’s political cohesion – one need only look at the Ukrainian, Greek or even the Migrant issues to see that it is blatantly not the case. Urging for decisive and firm action from a structure that is essentially built on compromise and is still searching for its political voice is unrealistic. However, Europe is blessed with world-leading industrial giants and is conveniently looking to expand its economic activities in order to replenish its bank accounts – as the recent weapon deals have shown, the EU member states benefit from very good reputations when it comes to designing tools that kill/pacify.

Once more, the official announcement by the Arab League to create its own version of a multinational peacekeeping force, has come in at a timely moment, and will no doubt be utilised (should the endeavour get off the drawing board in the first place) in Yemen. Supplying this force and any other peacekeeping mission in Yemen with the adequate logistical support must become the objective of the EU or at the very least of the member states. To paraphrase the French foreign minister, economic diplomacy is just as effective as a lever for influence as traditional diplomacy or a hard-power show of strength.

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