As battle rages for the strategic port of Hudaydah, key questions are being raised about the conflict in Yemen, especially in regard to its regional and international components. The dominant analysis in the pro-Saudi camp is that the capture of Hudaydah may well prove to be a major turning point in the war.
But even if Hudaydah falls to the Saudi-UAE led coalition, it is unlikely to bring about a swift end to the conflict in Yemen. The situation on the ground is increasingly defined in terms of ever-deepening fragmentation along multiple tension points and centrifugal forces.
These include misalignment in the strategic objectives of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, an invigorated southern secessionist movement (backed by the UAE), a weak central authority and a residual jihadist problem.
However, in so far as the regional dimension of the conflict is concerned, the loss of Hudaydah will pose the biggest challenge to Iran. The Islamic Republic is the Ansarallah movement’s (aka the Houthis) strongest foreign supporter and views the Yemeni conflict as an important arena in its wider struggle against Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the United Arab Emirates.
The main indications are that Iran will intensify its help to the Houthis in the event of a major setback in Hudaydah, potentially escalating the conflict with a view to fracturing the uneasy Saudi-UAE coalition.
A War of Reputations
Unlike the wars in Iraq and Syria, the Yemeni conflict is not central to Iranian national security concerns. As a result, Iranian propaganda has been at pains to justify involvement in the conflict, often focusing on the war’s dire humanitarian aspect with a view to whipping up sympathy and anger in Iranian public opinion.
In policy terms, Yemen’s lack of centrality to Iranian national security priorities has created a degree of multipolarity in Tehran, with several key power centres making a contribution to the policy-making process. Whereas in Syria – and to a lesser extent Iraq – Iranian policy is dominated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the situation is more complex in respect to Yemen.
In Yemen, the Iranian foreign ministry has a potentially decisive say, as evidenced by the recent announcement that Yemen is the only arena where Iran is prepared to discuss policy with key European powers. This was in part motivated by both parties’ desire to save the increasingly doomed Iranian nuclear deal.
The Iranian foreign ministry’s involvement notwithstanding, the IRGC – and specifically its expeditionary Quds Force – remain the key drivers of Iran’s Yemeni policy. Underlying the IRGC’s main motivation for supporting the Houthis is the long-held aspiration of encroaching on Saudi Arabia’s backyard and thus severely undermining the Kingdom’s confidence and by extension its national security.
This aspiration will remain undiminished in the foreseeable future, even in the event of a major Houthi defeat. Indeed, even if the fall of Hudaydah precipitates an advance on Sanaa, the IRGC will continue to support the Houthis, as the latter have proven to be a credible long-term investment.
This is in large measure due to a genuine ideological shift inside the Ansarallah movement which has led the group to become a fully paid up member of the so-called “axis of resistance”, the ideological cover for the Iranian-led alliance in the Middle East.
The Houthis’ ideological transformation – and associated alignment with regional Iranian policies – makes it much harder for the IRGC to decrease support to the movement, let alone abandon the northern Yemeni fighters to their fate. The reputational costs of this retreat are considerable, especially in the context of ever-increasing tensions with regional enemies Saudi Arabia and Israel, in addition to the United States.
Even if the fractured Saudi-UAE coalition seizes Hudaydah, they will still be a long way away from achieving their core objective, which is to wrest control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa from the Houthis. As pressure mounts on the Houthis, they are likely to step up offensive actions with a view to deterring the coalition from preparing an assault on Sanaa.
Hitherto, the Houthis’ main deterrent capability has centred on ballistic missiles. Medium range missiles have been fired at the Saudi capital Riyadh with increasing regularity, with the latest – reportedly intercepted – strikes occurring on Sunday.
The United Nations has concluded that some missile parts have been supplied by Iran but has stopped short of accusing the Islamic Republic of directly supplying the Houthis with the technology and knowhow to upgrade existing missile stocks in Yemen. Moreover, the UN has not concluded that the transfer is in violation of existing restrictions.
The missile strikes on Saudi Arabia serve two inter-related purposes: foremost, they act both as retaliation and deterrence against Saudi air strikes on Yemeni military and civilian targets. Second, they are designed to sabotage morale inside the Kingdom and decrease the Saudi public’s support for the continuation of the war, even though there is no sign of that happening yet.
Following this logic, the missile strikes can potentially target the UAE, which would count as a massive escalation in the war. The Houthis have threatened to strike at the UAE before, a clear sign of potential intent in the event of a deterioration of Ansarallah’s fortunes on the ground.
For their part, hard line Iranian factions – with close ties to the IRGC – have also threatened to take the fight to the UAE via ballistic missiles. Last November an editorial in the hard line daily Kayhan ran an incendiary headline proclaiming that following the missile strikes on Riyadh, Dubai is “next” on Ansarallah’s target list.
A ballistic missile strike on Dubai will send shockwaves around the world and would most likely generate irresistible pressure on the US and UK to intervene directly in the Yemeni conflict. This horrible scenario should serve as a warning to the United States that applying too much pressure on Iran – and specifically on the IRGC – will produce unintended consequences.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.