Saudi Arabian air strikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have been touted as the latest escalation in a regional proxy war betweenSaudi Arabia and Iran. As the two countries continue to train, finance and equip rival militants in the Syrian civil war, and to support opposing sides in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen, fears have been raised about where this now-militarised regional rivalry could go.
But talk of a proxy war risks over-estimating the level of power Saudi Arabia and Iran wield, and overlooking the local actors who truly shape the conflicts in question. The Houthi movement has been able to advance across Yemen largely because of its alliance with the ancien régime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and because of its ability to tap into disillusionment with the poor performance of the Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi government. Though Iran may have helped to hone the effectiveness of the Houthi movement, it is neither the cause of nor a major player in the emerging Yemeni civil war.
That reality, however, is lost on a Saudi Arabia that is so fearful of Iran’s mounting influence in the region that it has instigated air strikes that are more likely to exacerbate than to resolve the conflict in neighbouring Yemen.
Saudi Arabian and Iranian threat perceptions are heavily influenced by their fear, suspicion and hatred of each other. This antipathy was born of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which unleashed a revolutionary Islamist rhetoric that directly challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi Arabian regime, and threated to export the revolution across the Middle East. Khomeini appealed to the oppressed peoples of the region, offering them support to achieve freedom, equality and an end to injustice. Saudi Arabia sought to undercut that rhetoric by highlighting Iran’s Shiism, and by promoting intolerant versions of Wahhabi Islam that, among other unsavoury qualities, encourage vitriolic anti-Shia sentiments.
Despite these efforts, Iran was able to achieve astonishing popularity on the Arab street. The regime spoke to the anguish caused by Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the anger harboured towards the west for its role in breaking apart the Arab world after the First World War. With its aggressive anti-western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, its backing of the relatively successful Hezbollah and Hamas, and eloquent support of the victims of Arab authoritarianism, Iran became highly popular in the Arab world. In 2006, Iran achieved approval ratings of around 75% in the Arab and Muslim world, and scored an impressive 85% among the Saudi public.
But its ability to reach Arab audiences did not make Iran feel more secure. Since the US broke formal diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980, it has been subject to the freezing of assets and to numerous iterations of a US-led sanctions regime. During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war the US and the majority of the Arab world supported Iraq, and when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran was openly pointed to as the next country on the list; Iran felt encircled in a Sunni-dominated region.
As a result, when the US occupation of Iraq began to disintegrate, Iran seized the opportunity to bring Iraq into its own sphere of influence. It heavily invested in the arming and financing of numerous militias and political parties across the political landscape. With the Americans overwhelmed and underequipped to deal with Iraqi politics, and the Arab world sulking about the invasion and refusing to talk to the new Iraqi government, the Iranians had free rein.
Saudi Arabia was horrified by the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, fearing that this upset the entire balance of power in the Middle East, and urged the US to restrain their rival. In a famous Wikileaks cable, the Saudis are reported to have exhorted the US to “cut off the head of the snake” by strengthening sanctions and bombing Iran. Chastened by its misadventures in Iraq, however, the US had no intention of launching another invasion. When popular uprisings began to spread across the Arab world in 2011, Saudi Arabia felt its foundations shake. At its most vulnerable point, it watched as the US withdrew support from longtime ally Hosni Mubarak and choked as it saw anti-regime demonstrations building in neighbouring Bahrain. Seeing Iran’s hand behind a legitimate popular opposition movement, Saudi Arabia sent tanks across its causeway with Bahrain to crush the uprising and to prevent Iran from establishing itself on Saudi Arabia’s eastern border.
But Saudi Arabia seemed unable to shoot down Iran’s rising star. As the Syrian rebels failed over and over again to receive the aid they needed from the international community, Iranian support enabled President Assad’s resurgence in the Syrian civil war. And the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq precluded serious efforts to remove Assad from power, and strengthened Iran’s hand as the convener of Iraqi Shia resistance forces in Iraq. Now, as the Iranian-US nuclear negotiations enter their final stage, Saudi Arabia feels that the US has abandoned any attempt to check Iranian power in the Middle East. So if Iran is to be stopped, Saudi Arabia will have to take matters into its own hands – starting with building a coalition to defeat Iran in Yemen.
The problem is, however, that fear of Iran is clouding Saudi Arabia’s judgment. Iran is not the root cause of the conflict in Yemen, and bombing the country is not “standing up to Iran”; it is plunging the country further into violence and chaos. Unless bombing is used circumspectly as a tool to bring Houthis to the negotiating table, it is unlikely to have any positive impact on the situation in Yemen.
Seeing the spectre of Iran behind all the challenges that it faces in the Middle East reduces Saudi Arabia’s capacity to make sound strategic assessments of the state of play in the region. Iran did not orchestrate the uprisings in Bahrain; local oppressed Bahrainis genuinely came together to call for more rights. And Iran did not create the militias in Iraq; Iraqi Shias voluntarily joined militias in order to defend themselves and their country. Iran seeks to exploit areas where it believes it can expand, and works to bolster local actors who are pursuing genuine grievances so as to increase its own power, influence and leverage. Further oppressing those actors is not the answer.
If Saudi Arabia genuinely wants to undercut Iran’s influence in the Middle East, it must acknowledge and address the pain and suffering of marginalised groups across the Middle East. Giving them their rights and bringing them to the negotiating table is the best way to insulate them from Iranian influence.