Yemen and Saudi geostrategy (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

US officials wait to start a meeting with P5+1, European Union and Iranian officials at Iran’s nuclear programme at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne (photo: Reuters)
Developments in Yemen since 19 March cast into relief the impact of regional and international dynamics. Hardly had the US declared its support for Operation Decisive Storm than a White House spokesperson emerged to stress that Washington’s position on this Saudi-led operation will not affect negotiations with Iran.This was followed by other signals reflecting the determination of US and Iranian negotiators to “separate” the talks in Lausanne from the war in Yemen. Meanwhile, Tehran put its full weight behind the Houthis, and Washington has offered not just its political but also its logistic support to the Saudi-led coalition.
Such developments raise fundamental questions as to the timing of Decisive Storm. Why was it launched during the last quarter of an hour of the nuclear negotiations with Iran? How will the battles in the southern Arabian Peninsula affect the outcome of these negotiations?
More importantly, how will they affect the prospects for marketing any agreement that emerges from the negotiations among Washington’s Gulf allies?
LAST-MINUTE MANOEUVRE: Arab “inaction” lured Iran into continuing its advances in Yemen so as to score two wins simultaneously. In addition to a successful deal with the US, the yield of which would include Western recognition of an Iranian role in the region, it could capture Yemen as an extension of its sphere of influence and as another pressure card to wield against the Arabs.
In other words, Tehran hoped to take advantage of the remaining time before the anticipated agreement is struck to settle things in Yemen. This helps account for the Houthi advance, since 19 March, towards Aden. Their aim is to eliminate President Hadi by wresting the remaining land from his control or even by physically removing him from the tumultuous political scene.
Iran’s actions in Yemen constituted a major provocation to Riyadh, especially given that Yemen, located on Saudi Arabia’s southern flank, has sometimes posed a grave security threat. Riyadh was spurred into action in the framework of a broad regional alliance and international understanding.
It appears that this regional alliance is one of the outcomes of political and security steps taken by Riyadh in response to the new geopolitical reality that will arise following a presumed agreement between Tehran and the West.
THE SAUDI APPROACH TO CONFRONTING A NUCLEAR AGREEMENT: Saudi Arabia clearly senses the danger of an international agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme, especially at a time when Tehran’s allies are growing more powerful in the vicinity of Saudi borders, generating the worst security environment the kingdom has seen in decades.
The Saudis acknowledge that an agreement between Iran and the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany will receive widespread international support and will be supported by the UN.
It is not in Riyadh’s interests to huddle in an isolated corner, together with Netanyahu, against an agreement that has global support. The Saudi approach is to strengthen its regional alliances in preparation for a long-term confrontation with Tehran.
Most immediately this means strengthening the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Here, Saudi Arabia has some strong allies in Abu Dhabi and Manama but, from its perspective, there are a couple of weak links in a GCC league against Iran: Oman and Qatar.
Neither of these is likely to sacrifice profitable bilateral relations with Tehran, but King Salman is pressuring them to commit to GCC unity and prevent Iranian infiltration.
Riyadh has a key partner in Egypt. But Cairo is preoccupied with the threat of terrorism domestically in the Sinai and, more importantly, the impact of mounting disintegration in neighbouring Libya.
These dangers, together with the crisis surrounding the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, makes it difficult for Egypt to provide strong assistance against Iranian schemes in other parts of the region.
Because of this, it seems that Riyadh’s more important ally at this stage is Pakistan, the only Muslim nuclear power. Last year, in a military display, the Saudis publicly showed, for the first time, their Chinese-made mid-range self-propelled ballistic missiles, which are capable of reaching Tehran.
In the stands among the officials watching the display was the Pakistani Chief of Staff General Raheel Sherif, the man in charge of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. It is the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world and the Saudis have been helping to develop it since the 1970s. This was a carefully gauged signal.
In addition, in late February, King Salman invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif to Riyadh. The speculation in Islamabad was that the king wanted to obtain assurances from Sherif that if negotiations with Iran result in a “bad” agreement or no agreement, then Pakistan would meet its long-term commitment to Saudi security.
The nuclear component of that commitment would have been implied and understood by both sides, though the actual details of any Pakistani nuclear commitment to Saudi Arabia are, of course, one of the most tightly guarded secrets in the world.
YEMEN’S POSITION IN THE SAUDI-IRANIAN CONFLICT: The opening of a direct flight between Sanaa and Tehran for the first time in February epitomises Iran’s success in achieving a major inroad into Saudi Arabia’s backyard and its historic weak point.
The Houthis now find themselves in a position equivalent to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both groups are the most powerful force in their countries, but both exist in the midst of political and demographic circumstances that prevent them from monopolising the management of national affairs.
The Ansar Allah in Yemen are trying to imitate Hezbollah in that they are trying to persuade other factions to work together with them, and to form a consensus government similar to that in Lebanon. However, at present Ansar Allah are like Hezbollah used to be in the 1980s. It will take time until it could translate its military power into political power. The Saudis are acting now to forestall that prospect.
Saudi Arabia realises that Tehran wants to use the Houthis to obtain a seat at the negotiating table and to become a key player in Yemen. Ultimately, however, geographic and political restrictions will hamper Iranian efforts to curtain Saudi influence in Yemen.
Unlike Lebanon, Yemen is not under Israeli occupation and it does not have a neighbour like Syria that the Iranians can use as a corridor to equip the Houthis.
On the other side, while the Saudis believe that the situation will turn out in their favour, they cannot afford to relax and allow the Houthis to remain in power in Sanaa. Houthi success in consolidating their power in Yemen could make the governorates of Najran and Jizan vulnerable to Houthi expansionist designs in the future, due to the Ismail Shia that inhabit these governorates. The Iranians would clearly welcome such a drive and increase their support for the Zaidis.
THE NOISE OF BATTLES IN YEMEN REVERBERATES IN LAUSANNE: Some observers see Washington’s declared support for the Saudi-Gulf-Arab alliance as a pressure card to wield against the Iranian negotiator. There is a broad regional front that is coalescing against Iranian influence in the region, beginning from Yemen.
It is in Iran’s interests to accelerate the business of concluding a deal with the P5+1. Otherwise, it risks two losses: continuation of sanctions that are debilitating its economy and reduction of its regional reach and role.
However, there is another way to read the coincidence between the negotiating round in Lausanne and the explosion of the Yemeni crisis. This reading holds that Saudi Arabia and a broad array of Arab states are fearful of “the expansion of Iranian regional influence.” They see this as the “right time” to deliver a blow to Iranian expansion, starting with the current threat to the soft Saudi underbelly, Yemen.
If Saudi Arabia does not act now when Iran desperately needs a nuclear agreement, according to this argument, the opportunity will never come again, or the cost for acting in the future will be much higher as by then the Iranians will probably have shed the shackles of isolation and sanctions.
This reading presumes that Washington, which until very recently had fostered a mode of cooperation with the Houthis to fight Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), regarded as the most dangerous threat to US and Western security, has decided to throw its support behind its Saudi ally in its war against the Houthis as a means to dispel Riyadh’s concern over negotiations in Lausanne.
After giving Riyadh such assurances, Washington is better poised to market an imminent agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme to its “moderate” Arab and Sunni allies.
The calculatedly angry Iranian reaction to Operation Decisive Storm reflects Iran’s scale of priorities at this particular moment. Tehran will not embark on any step that could jeopardise the prospects of reaching an agreement with Washington and Brussels.
Under other circumstances, the Iranian president would have undertaken a series of intensive communications with his country’s allies to discuss how to respond to the Saudi slap in the face. But at this moment, Tehran chose a different course of action: to continue talks with the leaders of the P5+1 and overcome all remaining obstacles to an agreement.
Washington is probably also giving high priority to reaching an agreement. More importantly, it wants it signed with the minimum degree of fuss from its allies, which is why it moved to support the Saudi decision to intervene in Yemen while refraining from taking part in combat activities and restricting itself to furnishing intelligence, maps, drones and fuel. In other words, it seems that we will not know the course that events will take in Yemen until we know what is happening in Lausanne.
The question that presses itself now is whether the positions will remain the same after an agreement is struck in Lausanne. Will Tehran continue in its “carefully gauged reaction” or will it turn to other options after an agreement? Will Washington continue its support for the Arab coalition or will this support recede in favour of the priority of the war against terrorism?
The noise of battles in Yemen is echoing in Lausanne. But the parties to the negotiations there have apparently chosen to close the doors and soundproof the windows to keep the reverberations from affecting negotiations, and to keep the Israelis from spying.
Most likely, the real positions of all sides, and the steps that will be taken, will only become clearer after all outstanding questions and issues are settled in the Kerry-Zarif meeting rooms.