It’s been a big couple of day for people pointing out Iran’s involvement in Yemen’s cruel and generationally-destructive civil war. The Times had a pretty big story about it, relying on the unbiased reporting of the United States.
The top American admiral in the Middle East said on Monday that Iran continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen, stoking the civil strife there and enabling Iranian-backed rebels to fire missiles into neighboring Saudi Arabia that are more precise and far-reaching.
Iran has been repeatedly accused of providing arms helping to fuel one side of the war in Yemen, in which rebels from the country’s north, the Houthis, ousted the government from the capital of Sana in 2014.
The officer, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, said that Iran is sustaining the Houthis with an increasingly potent arsenal of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats that have attacked allied ships in the Red Sea or Saudi territory across Yemen’s northern border. The United States, the Yemeni government and their allies in the region have retaliated with strikes of their own and recaptured some Houthi-held coastal areas to help blunt threats to international shipping, but the peril persists, the admiral said.
This is an…interesting spin on this. To be clear, it is almost certainly true. Though initial Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict (dating back to 2004) was clearly exaggerated, as there weren’t any real links between the Houthi version of Shi’ism and Iran’s Twelverism, Iranian influence and involvement have grown disastrously.
But one of the main reasons Iranian involvement has grown is because of increased involvement by Saudi Arabia, its regional and sectarian rival. Saudi Arabia wanted to break the Houthi rebellion and support their chosen President, and so invaded, with horrifying results.
Saudi Arabia, led by Mohammed bin Salman, the next king, has murdered Yemen. The country was already falling off the brink, and Saudi Arabia cut off every possible rescue line. Their horrifying airstrikes have indiscriminately killed civilians by the thousands and tens of thousands, and have destroyed what is left of Yemeni infrastructure.
The legacy? Starvation. Drought. Famine. Cholera (almost 700,000 cases). And a completely wrecked future. Given the human and environmental toll, not to mention the political insanity that is played out in front of those grim settings, and the long historical factors that have caused, exacerbated, and distorted the violence, I don’t really see any future for Yemen as Yemen.
While both sides have been murderous, the side that isn’t based in Yemen (that is to say, the Sauds, as opposed to the Saleh/Houthi coalition) has been distinctly callous and cruel. Everyone knows this. The UN released a report today which highlighted how both sides are doing it.
We are very disturbed that civilians, including children, continue to be killed in attacks carried out by both the Popular Committees affiliated with the Houthis and army units loyal to the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as by the Saudi-led coalition.
Just over the past five days, we have confirmed that three children died and seven others were injured in attacks by Houthi/Saleh forces in the Salah district of the city of Taizz; while a coalition airstrike in Marib killed a further five children along with seven adults.
This is very instructive. You might think it weird that the less-murderous attack got top billing, or that in both sentences the Saudi coalition is sort of an afterthought. You would find it especially weird if you scrolled to the end of the report, and found this bit.
The total number of civilians casualties we have verified since March 2015 stands at 13,920, including 5,159 people killed and 8,761 injured. The actual numbers are likely to be far higher. And, as the High Commissioner noted in his speech to the Human Rights Council last week, coalition airstrikes continue to be the leading cause of civilian casualties, including of children.
And you might find it furtherly weird were you to read to 3/4th down the page in the Times article.
Admiral Donegan’s most pointed accusations focused on suspected Iranian assistance to the Houthi rebels. The United States and other Western governments have provided vast quantities of weapons, and other forms of military support, to the embattled Yemeni government and its allies in a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, contributing to violence that the United Nations says has caused more than 10,000 civilian casualties.
At this point, you might be tempted to say: wait, what the hell, man? You might be very, very mad at the Times for saying US arms sales were “contributing to violence”, when everyone agrees that the Saudi collation is the overwhelming driver of violence and wreckage. You might also be irritated at the UNCHR for both-siderism, remembering that they have been knuckled under by the Sauds for over a year.
To be clear, all of these reactions would be correct.
There is an insane double-standard at work here, and it is partly because we’re gearing up for more conflict with Iran, something Nikki Haley has made clear. We’re beating the drums to “renegotiate” the deal with Iran, and so have to paint them as unique drivers of instability in the region. And that means describing anything they do, even if it is the exact same thing as the US does, as uniquely evil.
Donald Trump, in his insane and embarrassing UN speech this morning, said as much. While sounding like an idiot lamenting the Iran deal (“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” he said. “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”), he also recited a list of Iran’s regional meddling. This included the charge that Iran “fueled Yemen’s civil war.”
To me, that’s a walkout moment for delegates. While Saudi Arabia didn’t start the war, they are the primary fuel for the destruction of Yemen, and the US is their primary source of arms. That is indisputable.
But that’s the US, really, and it is the US an an extension of the same impulses that drove colonialism and oppression for centuries. We think we’re entitled to run the Middle East, out of a desire for resources (not just oil, but shipping lanes, trade, etc: the American global sphere of influence). That’s what powerful countries do. But it is insane to think that Iran has no right to take a side in the civil war, when we are taking that side.
This is both a moral and a realpolitik argument. It makes me extremely angry to think that the Sauds should have access to literally all the weapons so that they can run roughshod over another country whose government can’t come close to being called legitimate, and has control over the tiniest portion of the country, but that the other side cannot.
Yes, that’s “fueling violence”, but the violence already exists, and the US is placing an enormous thumb on it. And it is dumb to pretend that Iran doesn’t have a stake in the region, and more so, that they shouldn’t. Of course they do. Their very short time of being non-influential was a historical aberration. There have been dozens, hundreds of powers that tried to control the region, from Byzantines to Nazis to British to the US, Mongols and Russians and Abbasids and Arabs, Greeks and Babylonians, but Persia has remained a seat of power. It waxes and wanes, but it always is.
That’s why this is so dumb and reckless. To act as if Iranian involvement in the Middle East is this ahistorical nightmare is to play into the hands of their radical government. The whole point of the Islamic Revolution was to overthrow Western imperialism in the form of the hated Shah. Treating Iran as a partner in the region is the only way to undercut the regime’s primary impetus. Acting like Iran has no right to influence the area is to give them strength.
I’m not happy Iran is arming the Houthis. I don’t “support” them, or any of the elites fighting over the dead they hope to rule and pretend to represent. But the US is complicit in the destruction of Yemen, and makes things worse, regionally, by acting like our support of Saudi Arabia is moral whereas Iran is overstepping its boundaries.
This is an easy historical lesson. You don’t even have to look far back, or elsewhere. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, Iran wasn’t very involved in the first few rounds of the Houthi uprisings. But in order to get the West on his side, President Saleh told everyone he could that the Houthis were being armed as part of a Shi’ite plot or whatever.*
That became axiomatic, even in the absence of evidence, and was listed as proof of Iranian perfidy. And here’s the thing: that’s part of why Iran started getting involved. Its prestige was on the line. If everyone believed they supported the Houthis, and the Houthis lost, well, they’d look like idiots.
That’s how these things work. I just don’t honestly know if we’re capable of learning those lessons, and feel the events of the last few days offer proof.
*(Yes, it’s weird that Saleh is now fighting with the Houthis. That is something I never predicted or even imagined. But that’s the shifting nature of politics in Yemen, exaggerated by the chaos and vacuum caused by this war. And hellfire, in the long run, Saleh convinced Iran to help him take back power, indirectly. He remains the luckiest man in the world.)