Dan Murphy explains why it is a mistake to view the Houthis in Yemen simply as Iranian proxies:

“The Shiite Houthi rebels are backed by Iran” is a true statement.

But the prevalence of this cheap bit of short-hand about a conflict decades in the making does far more to obscure and confuse than it does to enlighten. The Houthi movement are not remotely Iranian cat’s paws – no more-so than President Abdu Mansour Hadi, currently residing in Riyadh, is a Saudi one.

Naturally, it suits the Saudis and the other supporters of their campaign to portray the Houthis in this light because it lends their unprovoked attack on Yemen the appearance of being a reaction, however excessive, to a significant expansion of Iranian influence. If it were acknowledged that the Houthis had minimal backing from Iran and were fighting Hadi and his allies for reasons that had nothing to do with the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, that would cause us to see the conflict in Yemen as primarily a local struggle for power among Yemenis into which other regional governments are now unwisely plunging. By treating the Houthis as nothing more than Iranian proxies, and by casting the conflict in terms of weakening Iran’s position in the region, this could have the perverse effect of creating an opening for increased Iranian interference that didn’t exist before. Kevin Sullivan made this point earlier this week:

But couching every complex Mideast crisis as the latest round in a regional tug-of-war is not only simplistic and self-serving, it’s self-fulfilling. If, for instance, Houthi rebels are led to believe that their only true ally in the region is Iran, then Iran it shall be.

Like many other unnecessary wars, the Saudi-led war on Yemen is based on threat inflation and a serious and presumably willful misunderstanding of local conditions. The earlier conflict is being shoehorned into a story about regional rivalries that the instigators of the new military campaign want to tell in order to make the intervention seem more defensible. We can hope that most Americans would agree that bombing a poor, weaker neighbor is indefensible aggression, but we know that bombing a poor, weaker neighbor because there are Iranian proxies there is treated very differently. In that case, the attack is spun as “protecting” the country from the meddling of others. To judge whether we should believe this story, all we need to do is ask how we would react if Iran’s government made similarly false and exaggerated claims to justify attacking another country.