Iran’s offer to help in Yemen: What’s the agenda?

There has been a slight change in Iranian officials’ rhetoric and tone on the Yemen recently, for purely tactical reasons. This change was initiated because of the shift in Iran’s foreign policy regarding how to use “diplomacy” and words in order to achieve Tehran’s ideological, geopolitical and economic objectives.

This week saw the surprise news that Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, has offered his country’s assistance to other Arab states for “getting out of the crisis in Yemen”, according to BBC Persian.

Since the Yemen crisis began and through last week, Iranian officials, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the country’s state-controlled media outlets launched a war of rhetoric against several Arab countries – particularly Saudi Arabia. The countries were criticized for their involvement in Yemen.

Tehran’s struggle to tip the regional balance of power in its favor, promoting its ideological and sectarian values, and demonstrating its regional supremacy.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

What is intriguing about Tehran’s attitude is that the Islamic Republic views other countries’ engagement in Yemen – even those that share borders with Yemen and have justifiable security reasons to be concerned about the conflict – as interventions, irrelevant, and intrusive. Simultaneously, Iran sees its own role in Yemen as justifiable even though it does not share a border with Yemen and the conflict does not pose any security threat whatsoever to Tehran.

Iran sees the Yemen conflict as Tehran’s struggle to tip the regional balance of power in its favor, promoting its ideological and sectarian values, and demonstrating its regional supremacy over other Arab states in the Gulf.

Nevertheless, why is there a sudden diplomatic offer coming from Tehran?

Iranian leaders biting off more than they can chew

Iran goes to great lengths to present an image of economic power, however in reality Iranian leaders are hemorrhaging billions of dollars, with the approval of Mr. Khamenei, to maintain their proxies fighting and to keep two other governments in power – in Syria and Iraq.

For many years, the geopolitical, strategic, ideological and economic benefits of creating Shiite proxies across the region exceeded the financial, military and weaponry expenses that Tehran spent in doing so.

The trend has changed for the Islamic Republic. Iran’s foreign policies of supporting Shiite proxies and governments led to excesses and unintended consequences. Iran found itself and its proxies and allies fighting in several full-fledged wars against its strategic rivals, thus spending billions of dollars more in its efforts to support them.

Iranian leaders are bleeding economically and militarily. This is due to the country’s underlying ideological values, its unintended consequences, and Tehran’s foreign policy standards – to search for regional supremacy, support its proxies, and maintain its ideological and hegemonic ambitions. What is worse for Tehran is that this economic and military bleeding – in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, etcetera – does not appear to be stopping anytime soon.

As a result, Iran is desperately pleading and manipulating, using words and rhetoric in an attempt to save its budget and military manpower. We should remember that Iran’s rhetoric and words worked to solidify the nuclear deal.

But do all of these words mean that Iran is going to actually alter its foreign policy toward Yemen and the Houthis?

Iran wants to have its proxies’ cake and eat it too

Iran’s Supreme Leader and the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are so shackled into the underlying ideological and deep-rooted institutional values of the Islamic Republic that they will not, and cannot, alter their position of supporting the Houthis.

They also cannot retract their support from other Shiite proxies and governments in the region.

Halting financial, advisory, intelligence, and political support to these proxies and governments could save Iranian leaders billions of dollars. If Tehran lessens its support to those proxies and states, they will be forced to make concessions and consequently the conflict will cease because as long as the Houthis and other proxies believe that the Islamic Republic is behind them, they have no incentive to stop the war.

Hence, Iran will benefit economically if it changes its foreign policies. But the underlying issue is that Tehran is so deeply entrenched in the well-established and instituted ideological, sectarian (Sunni vs Shia), and ethnic (Persians vs Arabs) norms that it is impossible for the government and Iranian leaders to change the character of the state.

After the success of the nuclear deal, Iranian leaders have learned that smiley faces and wielding a diplomatic tone can assist them.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Iran’s ideological norms, which are pervasive throughout the country, includes the struggle to tip the regional balance of power against Arab states in the Gulf, which is an indispensable element and pillar of the Islamic Republic, primarily the Supreme Leader and IRGC.

The other reason behind Iran’s change of rhetoric is related to Tehran’s tactical shift in using verbal manipulation and “diplomacy” in order to achieve its ideological, geopolitical and economic objectives.

After experiencing the success of the nuclear deal, Iranian leaders have learned that smiley faces and wielding a diplomatic tone assisted them in paving the way to receive billions of dollars and have some of the crippling economic sanctions on their country lifted.

From the Iranian leaders’ perspective, a new rhetoric, tactical shift and different choice of words on Yemen might assist them in their attempt to save billions of dollars while simultaneously maintaining Tehran’s proxy. As a result Iran could become more empowered in Yemen, all while leaving Iran’s underlying foreign policy objectives, ideological principles and regional hegemonic ambitions intact.

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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

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