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Saudi Distortions and the War on Yemen

So many of the reports on the Saudi-led intervention have accepted the Saudis' self-serving, dishonest framing of the conflict.
yemen airstrikes sa'ada

Thomas Juneau explained last week that Yemen’s Houthis are not Iranian puppets:

Saudi Arabia claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, leading it to frame the war as an effort to counter Iran’s influence. The Saudis are not the only ones to label the Houthis puppets of Iran. Politicians and media in the West, in particular, also frequently describe them as Iranian proxies.

Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies [bold mine-DL].

Instead, the war in Yemen is driven by local grievances and competition for power among Yemeni actors.

I have pointed out Iran’s negligible role in Yemen several times before, but it bears repeating because so many of the reports on the Saudi-led intervention have accepted the Saudis’ self-serving, dishonest framing of the conflict. The Saudis’ intervention has received very little scrutiny or criticism in the West, and one reason for that it is that it been presented to Western audiences as a “response” to supposed Iranian “expansionism.” The reality is that any influence Iran has gained in the country has come about as a result of the Saudi intervention:

The irony, of course, is that one of Saudi Arabia’s stated objectives for intervening in Yemen in March 2015 was to roll back a mostly fictitious Iranian influence. The intervention, however, is having the opposite effect: The Houthis are a small non-state actor attacked by a regional power with deep pockets and advanced weaponry. It is then only rational for the Houthis to seek assistance, albeit only small amounts, from the only external power willing and able to support them — Iran.

The false claim that Iran is “on the march” in the region has been a standard talking point for opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, because they were desperate to change the subject and to make Iran seem much more powerful than it is. That claim has also become an excuse for endorsing whatever reckless action our regional clients happen to take and spinning it as a “reaction” to Iranian behavior. It has helped the Saudis to present their aggressive and unnecessary military intervention in Yemen as a “defensive” measure, and it has obscured the fact that they and their allies are the ones doing the most to destabilize the region. The U.S. and Britain would presumably have gone along with supporting the war on Yemen anyway, but the specter of growing Iranian influence has helped to mute criticism of the war and U.S.-British backing of it.



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