Paul Pillar counters the prevalent hawkish story that Iran is “destabilizing” the region. Here he addresses the Iranian role in Yemen, or lack thereof:
Iran did not instigate the Houthi rebellion, nor are the Houthis accurately described as “clients” of Iran much less “proxies,” as they often inaccurately are called. Instead Iran was probably a source of restraint in advising the Houthis not to capture the capital of Sanaa, although the Houthis went ahead and did it anyway. The Iranians probably are glad to see the Saudis bleed some in Yemen, and whatever aid Tehran has given to the Houthis was given with that in mind. But any such aid pales in comparison to the extent and destructiveness of the Saudis’ intervention in Yemen, which has included aerial assaults that have caused many hundreds of civilian casualties.
Blaming Iran for the wrecking of Yemen has been a common refrain among Iran hawks for the last few months, and it is part of a broader, largely unfounded allegation of Iranian “regional aggression.” This lie about Yemen echoed the propaganda of the Saudi-led coalition, and it served as a useful distraction from the responsibility the Saudi and U.S. governments have had in creating a massive humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Considering that the Saudis and the U.S. are directly contributing to Yemen’s ruin through military intervention, it is even more ridiculous to fault Iran for what has happened there when its role has been a very minor one all along. This is an especially awful example of how threat inflation leads to a horrible policy decision. Outside governments have made the conflict in Yemen dramatically worse out of an excessive and unfounded fear of an Iranian “takeover” that wasn’t happening, and for the sake of “preventing” something that was never going to happen an entire country has been subjected to more than two months of pummeling from the air and a cruel and extremely harmful blockade.
Hawks have been misrepresenting the war in Yemen as the product of Iranian interference to shift blame for the disastrous results of the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed intervention. They have been similarly misrepresenting the Houthis as Iranian proxies to shoehorn what was originally a local Yemeni conflict into their story about an Iran that was “on the march” across the region. Iran hawks are sounding an alarm about Iranian “expansionism” to gin up more opposition to a nuclear deal, but for the most part there has been no expansion of Iranian influence there or elsewhere in the last few years.