The swearing-in, earlier this week, of a new government in Yemen does not mark the end of the Iranian-backed Shia rebellion in that country. In September, the Shia rebels (also known as “Houtis”) took over the capital city of Sana’a and the Al-Hudayah port on the Red Sea (Yemen’s second most important port after Aden). Iran’s immediate aim is for its Shia offshoot to take control of the Bab-el Mandeb strait, the strategic passageway between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Iran’s broader strategy, however, is to encircle Saudi Arabia with a Shia-controlled ring.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister who now advises the Supreme Leader Ali Khameni, declared that his plan is for the Houtis to become to Yemen what Hezbollah is to Lebanon, i.e. a Shia faction in control of an Arab state. Ali Riza Zakani, an Iranian member of parliament who is also close to Khamenei, added that with the fall of Sana’a there are now four Arab capitals in Iran’s hands: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a. True, Baghdad and Damascus were recently threatened by the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But the Iranian-backed Quds Force was able to keep Baghdad under Iranian control, and in Syria Bashar Assad has held on to power thanks to Iran’s support.
With Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in the north, and Yemen in the south, the Iranian ring around Saudi Arabia is taking shape. Iran’s next target is Bahrain. Kayhan (the Iranian newspaper controlled by Khamenei) wrote recently that the al-Saud family will fall and the Sunni kingdom will not survive the Houti rebellion in Yemen. Iranian journalist Mohammed Sadeq Al-Husseini declared on the pro-Iranian Lebanese television station Mayadeen that Saudi Arabia is a tribe on the verge of extinction and that once Iran controls the Bab-el Mandeb strait, it will block Israel’s access to the Indian Ocean. Iran’s control of Bab-el Mandeb will also make it harder for Israel to intercept ships carrying weapons, which Iran dispatches to Gaza.
A decade ago, Iran was on the defensive. It was encircled by US troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Under US pressure, Assad was compelled to withdraw his army from Lebanon. Today, however, Iran is on the offensive. It is even being courted by the Obama Administration to fight ISIL. As soon as Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state thanks to the agreement it is negotiating with the West, it will become the most influential and powerful country of the Middle East. A nuclear, or even near-nuclear, Iran will enable this regional hegemon to control the strategic Hormuz and Bab-el Mandeb straits.
In retrospect, Iran has been the main beneficiary of the ill-named “Arab Spring.” The collapse of US-backed Arab regimes and the US retreat from Iraq have left a void eagerly filled by Iran. The struggle against ISIL has turned Iran, almost overnight, from America’s number one enemy to its indispensable partner. In fact, there is a pattern of US policies paradoxically serving long-term Iranian interests. Such was the case when the United States ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 and Saddam Hussein from Baghdad in 2003. Now, the United States is adopting a conciliatory attitude in the nuclear negotiations in order to secure Iran’s alleged cooperation in the struggle against ISIL.
Iran, on the other hand, is becoming more and more outspoken and open about its endgame. It boasts about its control of four Arab capitals, says that its goal is the fall of the al-Saud family, and admits that it wants to control the two strategic straits north and south of the Arabian Peninsula.
As for Israel, Khamenei just tweeted a nine-point plan for Israel’s destruction. US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned it as “unacceptable and shocking.” Yet it is from Khamenei’s Iran that the Obama Administration is asking for help to fight ISIL, and it is with Khamenei’s Iran that the same administration is now concluding a nuclear deal that will keep Iran six to 18 months away from the ability to produce fissile material for a bomb.
The Houti progress in Yemen must therefore be understood in a broader context. Iran is gaining the upper hand in the Sunni-Shia rift. If the looming deal between Iran and the P5+1 group enables the Islamic Shia Republic to build a bomb within a year, its hegemony in the Middle East will be complete.