Tom Friedman repeats an oft-recited canard in a recent column:
The [IRGC] Quds Force now more or less controls — through proxies — four Arab capitals: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana.
Indeed, Iran has become the biggest “occupying power” in the Arab world today.
This is wrong or misleading on pretty much every count, but it is probably most obnoxious with respect to Yemen because it echoes Saudi propaganda used to justify their atrocious war on that suffering country. The problem with these statements is that they completely ignore local actors and interests and mistakenly treat indigenous groups as mere puppets of Tehran.
As for supposedly being an “occupying power,” Iran is supporting the Iraqi and Syrian governments at their request. We may not like that support, but that is not what occupation looks like. The Saudis and the UAE and their allies are the ones occupying parts of Yemen, and Yemen’s “legitimate” government is run out of Riyadh because it has no backing at home. Iran doesn’t occupy any part of Yemen. Friedman’s statements may be good for fear-mongering and stoking hostility, but it is garbage analysis of the sort we have come to expect from him. Unfortunately, this gross exaggeration of Iranian “control” over other countries’ capitals is a commonly-held view that misinforms policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Iran’s influence in Yemen has modestly increased since the Saudi-led intervention started three years ago, and the relationship between Tehran and the Houthis is closer than it was, but that is a measure of how stupid and pointless the Saudi-led war has been. The Houthis were not Iranian proxies before the coalition intervention started, and they still are not. Iran does not control Sanaa through proxies or in any other way. That doesn’t fit the story that supporters of the Saudi-led war want to tell, but it happens to be true. In point of fact, the Iranian government advised the Houthis not to take the capital back in 2014, which was an odd thing for a supposedly “expansionist” government “on the march” to do. Maybe some hard-liners in Iran wished they had the sort of extensive influence and control ascribed to them, but it is just a wish.
This matters because Friedman is using his high-profile position to spread bad analysis and misinformation about conflicts that Americans already understand poorly or not at all. He already wrote an embarrassing love letter to the Saudi war criminal Mohammed bin Salman, and now he is echoing the Saudi government’s talking points about Iran and the war on Yemen. The war on Yemen is already so rarely covered and poorly understood in the U.S. that every piece of misinformation about the conflict there does much greater damage than usual. Anyone that makes the mistake of reading his columns would come away with a worse and more distorted understanding of this part of the world than he had before he started.