When a conflict erupts in a state, some countries which are not bordered with the conflict-affected state use political opportunism to direct the war in their interest.
Massoud Jazayiri, deputy head of Iran’s Armed Forces, recently told Iran’s Tasnim news agency, that Iran is ready to copycat the process it adopted in Syria and use it in Yemen as well. He added that Iran is prepared to send “military advisers” in support of the Houthis in Yemen.
Several of Iran’s weapons shipments, which were likely heading to war-torn Yemen, had also been seized.
The statement by the deputy head of Iran’s Armed Forces, referring to repeating Iran’s role in Yemen, is more of an exaggerated political posturing than reality.
Iran’s role in the war in Yemen is multidimensional. On the surface, Yemen does not seem to bear geopolitical or strategic significance for the Iranian leaders. Yemen’s conflict also does not pose a national security threat to Iran. But, why Iran is determined to have a role in Yemen’s war and direct it in its favor?
The ideological factor
One dimension of Iran’s involvement in Yemen is ideological. One core pillar of its foreign policy is anchored in its Islamic revolutionary principles.
The key decision maker in Iran’s foreign policy is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who pursues the ideology of his predecessor, Ayatollah Rooh Allah Khomenei, the founding figure of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khamenei has shown almost no deviation from Khomeini’s ideals.
In addition, Khamenei gives weight to the information he receives from his close advisors in the Office of the Supreme Leader (not the President, the foreign minister, or other powerful clerics) and the hardline senior cadre of Iran’s revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Since Khamenei views himself as the leader of Muslims, he has naturally positioned himself to view Saudi Arabia as a competitor and rivalDr. Majid Rafizadeh
One of Khamenei’s underlying revolutionary values is that he views himself as the leader of the Islamic world and he views Iran as the vanguard of Muslims. In fact, his official website refers to him as the “Supreme Leader of Muslims”, not the Supreme Leader of “Iran” or solely the “Shiites”.
As a result, from Khamenei’s perspective, as a supreme leader of Muslims, using rhetoric, influencing, and directing the political affairs of every Muslim country, including Yemen, is his religious and ideological duty.
In addition, since Khamenei views himself as the leader of Muslims, he has naturally positioned himself to view Saudi Arabia as a competitor and rival. Showing his ideological influence in Yemen gives him leverage against Riyadh.
Other revolutionary ideals include anti-Americanism. Khamenei regards his rhetoric and projection of Iran’s increasing role in Yemen’s conflict is a tactic to counter-balance the US role in the region.
The geopolitical and strategic reasons
Iran considers itself, and desires to be treated, as the paramount power in the Middle East because of it strategic significance, geographic location, military capabilities, economic strength, wealth and natural resources (such as holding the second and fourth largest gas and oil reserves in the world), and size of its population (second largest most populous nation in the Middle East after Egypt).
Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions direct the Iranian leaders to pursue policies which are aimed at countering the power of other regional state actors (mainly Saudi Arabia), and weakening their strategic, economic and geopolitical significance in order to tip the regional balance of power in favor of Tehran.
While Yemen does not pose a national security threat to Iran, it does to Saudi Arabia since it shares a border with Riyadh. Iran seizes this opportunity, by supporting the Houthis, to challenge Saudi Arabia, making it look more vulnerable, all while Tehran is showing off its regional significance to Saudi Arabia and how it can cause a security threat to Riyadh.
In addition, by diverting the Saudi’s attention to Yemen, Iran is attempting to create a quagmire for Riyadh in Yemen, making it bogged down in Sanaa, in order to draw it away from Syria and Iraq; Iran’s main allies.
Iran also seizes the opportunity to increase its leverage against Riyadh and use Yemen as a strategic bargaining chip, to push Saudi Arabia to change it policy toward Damascus, Baghdad, Bahrain or other countries where Iran exerts influence.
Economic, ethnic and sectarian factors
Economically speaking, Yemen is not as costly for Iran as Syria is, but it brings many benefits. Furthermore, Iran’s strategy of expanding its influence in the region is to create proxies in Muslim countries and make a political reality out of them to influence the domestic affairs of those nations (as it has done with Hezbollah and other Shiite groups in Iraq).
Ethnically speaking, and in terms of nationalism, Iran views one layer of its competition against Saudi Arabia as the rivalry between Persians and Arabs. Iran’s influence in Yemen helps Tehran in this respect.
Finally, although Iran views itself as the vanguard of both Sunnis and Shiites, it does contain a covert sectarian agenda in supporting the Shiites (or an offshoot of Shiism) to improve and extend its influence in other countries.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org, @Dr_Rafizadeh.