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During his three-day official visit to Britain, which starts today, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia will be voicing some very predictable rhetoric about his country’s role in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died since the onset of civil war in 2014. It is not the kingdom’s fault, he will assert, that its warplanes are bombing civilian targets and its warships are blockading ports, shutting out desperately-needed food and medicine. It is, instead, all the fault of Iran.
Desperate to win vast contracts with the oil-rich kingdom, the British government will doubtlessly echo such sentiments. Mrs May will gently rebuke the Saudis, expressing her ‘concern’ about their actions in Yemen, but then reiterate that she is ‘clear-eyed’ about Iran’s ‘aggressive regional actions’, the ‘threat’ it poses and ‘destabilising’ regional influence.
Like ‘the Reds under the beds’, the Iranians seem to be everywhere, undermining everything of geostrategic value. The sorry state of post-Saddam Iraq, and to some extent post-Taliban Afghanistan, was often blamed on Tehran. So too, in some quarters, was 9/11 and the failure of the Arab-Israeli ‘peace process’.
But all this finger-pointing provides a smokescreen into which the real culprits can hide and escape justice.
In the case of Yemen, the ‘links’ between Tehran and the Houthi rebels, who the Saudis have been fighting since March 2015, are something of a red herring. The Houthis are often said to be ‘Shia Muslims’, like the Iranians, but are in fact adherents of a distinct sect within Shi’ism, Zaydiyyah, that is as much a source of division as unity with Tehran.
And the ‘evidence’ that Iran has been arming its ‘allies’ in Yemen has uncomfortable parallels with Saddam’s WMD. Back in December, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, presented the world’s media with the fragments of one such ‘Iranian-supplied’ missile, but we were asked to take on trust her claims about what these fragments were, when they were supplied and by whom.
If Tehran has started to build or reinforce any links with the Houthis in the months and years that have followed the Saudi intervention that began in 2015, then it has good reason to do so.
For the truth is that, in the space of just a few years, Saudi Arabia has become an increasingly belligerent and hostile state. Riyadh has drastically increased its defence expenditure, which in 2016 amounted to $63.7 billion (10% of its GDP) against Iran’s $12.7 billion (3%). This has been accompanied by some increasingly aggressive rhetoric, and in May 2017 Prince Mohammed warned that the war for influence in the Middle East should henceforth be fought on a new front-line ‘inside Iran’.
There is plenty of other evidence of Saudi aggression. Riyadh is trying to isolate Qatar, which refuses to tow the Saudi line on a number of issues, and in November even tried to force Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, into resigning. And of course since 2011 it has been actively funding and arming Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias that have tried to topple Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad.
Viewed from Tehran in such terms, a Saudi presence in Yemen looks very threatening indeed. In particular, if the Saudis succeed in establishing control over Yemen’s ports, then they would at a single stroke be well-positioned to disrupt Iran’s oil exports. Many of these flow from the massive export terminal at Bandar Abbas, through the Gulf of Oman towards global markets, particularly in the Far East. But in the event of any conflict with Riyadh, this maritime route could be disrupted by Saudi planes and warships based at Yemeni ports such as Al Ghaydah, Nishtun and Sayhut. Tehran therefore has every reason to resist Saudi’s aggressive intervention in Yemen, which is provoking the very Iranian involvement that it is allegedly responding to.
Of course, the Saudis have their own legitimate security concerns too. If the Iranians were able to establish their own military presence on Yemen’s coasts, then they, too, would be well placed to disrupt the flow of Saudi oil along the Red Sea. But this hypothetical scenario does not justify inflicting such massive damage on Yemen and its people. It is, instead, the starting-point for an international settlement: if both Riyadh and Tehran can recognize each other’s strategic interest in the region, then they might agree to placing key Yemeni ports into the independent hands of the UN.
This, at the very least, could be the basis for an immediate ceasefire and a settlement that would buy some time. And as the death toll of Yemeni civilians mounts, there is no time to lose.
RT Howard’s books include ‘Warmongers: How the Leaders of Unnecessary Wars Have Wrecked the Modern World’ (2017)