A decades-old conflict in Yemen between the government and northern rebels from the country's Shi'ite minority is heating up. As it does, Yemeni officials are charging Iran with supporting the rebels in a conflict that is also drawing in Saudi Arabia. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Hossein Aryan about the fighting in Yemen and whether it risks sparking a larger regional crisis.
RFE/RL: The Yemeni government has been battling an on-again, off-again rebellion since 2004 in its mountainous north along the border with Saudi Arabia. The insurgents, known as Al-Shabab Al-Muminin (the Young Believers), or simply the Houthis -- after their leader's tribe -- are members of Yemen's Zaidi Shi'ite minority, which makes up more than a quarter of Yemen's population and constitutes a majority in the north. What do the rebels want?
Hossein Aryan: The insurgents are Zaidis, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, whose Imam ruled northern Yemen until the 1962 military coup that created the Yemen Arab Republic. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a Zaidi Shi'ite, claims the insurgents seek to overthrow the Sunni-dominated government and reestablish the Zaidi imamate (rule by religious leader) which, in fact, existed for almost a millennium before the 1962 coup....
The insurgents deny this and depict the president as a pro-United States "tyrant" who has not paid any attention to their long-held grievances emanating from lack of resources and development. They demand an end to social, economic, and political "discrimination" against the Houthis. They accuse the government of trying to dilute their religion by installing Sunni fundamentalists in mosques and official positions in some Zaidi areas. And they also accuse Saudi Arabia of backing the government of Saleh.
RFE/RL: The fighting has displaced about 175,000 people in Yemen's northwest Saada Province, according to the United Nations. Is the insurgency gaining strength over time?
Aryan: Since the first armed clashes between the Houthis and the Yemeni Army in June 2004, there have been a total of six rounds of fighting with increasing intensity and scope. The war began with just a few hundred rebel fighters and it has grown into a full-fledged insurgency that Yemen's military is struggling to contain.
The mountainous area in which the insurgents are operating makes it difficult for the army to take control. Last year, the fighting reached the outskirts of Sanaa, the capital. Now, the insurgency has become the highest-profile security challenge in Yemen, partly because of Iran's alleged role in aiding the insurgents.
Aid From Iran?
RFE/RL: As you mention, the Yemeni government has accused Iran of funneling arms and providing financial backing to the rebels, but the Yemeni government has not provided evidence to support the assertions. What do we know about the level of the alleged aid from Tehran?
Aryan: On 26 October an Iranian-crewed ship allegedly carrying weapons was seized by Yemen. This provided Yemeni authorities with an apparent direct link between the insurgents and their Iranian supporters, whom the Yemeni government referred to as "religious institutions."...
According to the Yemeni navy, the ship was intercepted in the Red Sea, west of Midi, a port in the northwestern province of Hajjah that adjoins the territory controlled by the insurgents. Confirming that five Iranians on board the ship were arrested by Yemeni security forces, Minister of Information Hassan al-Louzi said that they were being questioned and the results would be made public.
RFE/RL: What has been Iran's response?
Aryan: In response, Iranian state broadcaster Al-Alam television, which regularly reports on statements made by the insurgents, called the news about the ship's seizure "a fabrication of the media."
Iranian Minister of Defense Brigadier-General Ahmad Vahidi said reports about the seizure of a ship carrying Iranian arms were "suspicious and incorrect," and they were meant to create division among the countries in the region. He added that Iran could present Yemen with "proposals" for a solution to the conflict and that "military actions" are not the way forward....
At the same time, Iran's foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, has declared that no nation should "interfere" in Yemen's internal affairs, a veiled snipe at Saudi Arabia. And similarly, Major General Hasan Firouzabadi, Iranian chief of Staff of Armed Forces, has said that the actions Saudi Arabia is taking against Houthis "signal the start of state terrorism" and that such actions endanger the entire region.
RFE/RL: The official statements from both sides are focusing on recent alleged events. But is there, in fact, any long-standing relationship between Iran and the Houthis? For example: financial aid to build mosques in their villages or other help?
Aryan: Shi'a Islam practiced by Houthis is far removed from Iran's 'Twlever' version of Shi'a Islam. However, some religious scholars allege that Iran's fingerprints can be seen in the Houthi religious doctrine and political ideology. They add that the current Houthi leader, like the two before him, has deviated from the moderate Zaidi thought to the Twelver thought and that he finds the doctrine of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (known as velayat-e faqih), as practiced in Iran, a suitable means to assume political power.
Nevertheless, the tendency to make a link between the Houthi insurgency and Iran, and see all regional Shi'a movements acting in unison under Iran's leadership, does not reflect the historical, ethnic, social, and religious differences between Shi'a sects.
RFE/RL: A large number of media reports, as well as statements made by Yemeni and other Arab officials, portray the Houthi insurgency as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, claiming that a "Shi'a axis" made up of Iran, Lebanese Hizballah, and the Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are providing moral support and arms to the insurgents. Is it a proxy ideological war on Yemeni soil?
Aryan: Currently it is not, though Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government portray it like a proxy war. True, some Iranian officials as well as state-run media defend the insurgents' cause, but Houthis are not allied or affiliated to Iran in the same way as are Hizballah or Hamas.
Official relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are good and Tehran is not likely to favor any wider conflict in the region that would risk drawing it in....
That still leaves open the possibility that some hard-line elements inside the Iranian establishment are actively aiding the Houthis. And, in fact, Yemen's President Saleh, who has avoided blaming the Iranian government directly, has accused what he calls "a number of personalities" of backing the rebels.
But in spite of its intensity, the insurgency is not yet critical to warrant a change in the balance of power in the region. Still, its continuation could lead Yemen in to a period of renewed civil conflict that may easily spill into the Middle East.
RFE/RL: We have not yet talked directly about Saudi Arabia's role in the conflict. Saudi planes have bombed the rebels in the border area and Riyadh has imposed a naval blockade on northern Yemen's Red Sea coast to prevent weapons from reaching them. Saudi Arabia also has reported the deaths of two of its border guards in cross-border raids by insurgents this month alone. Of course, Saudi Arabia has a sizeable Shi'ite minority of its own in the east of the kingdom, where it strategically important oil fields also are located. Is Riyadh reacting so forcefully because it is afraid the insurgency in Yemen could somehow spark unrest in Saudi Arabia itself?
Aryan: Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about the spillover of the Houthi insurgency into its backyard. Saudi Arabia considers Iran as the main backer of the Houthis and Riyadh, as the Sunni hegemon of the region, has an agenda to eradicate Iran's foothold in Yemen and in other countries in the region with Shi'ite minorities.
With the Houthi insurgency in the north and the secessionist movement in the south, Saudi Arabia does not want Yemen to turn into a new powder keg in the region. Saudi Arabia wants a stable Yemen and for this very reason has been providing economic, intelligence and military aid to Sanaa.
RFE/RL: There has been a spate of articles in the Western press in recent months warning that Yemen could slide into increasing chaos due to the insurgency in the north and the unrelated unrest in the south. The fear is that Yemen could become a new haven for Al-Qaeda, which finds failed states a perfect base for its global network.
Aryan: The Yemeni government is concerned about the threat of a reconstituted Al-Qaeda whose members are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq or fleeing from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt to take refuge in Yemen and plan new terrorist attacks at home or abroad. Al-Qaeda has carried out a string of attacks in Yemen in the past year, including a September 2008 assault on the U.S. Embassy....
The prospect of any stronger Al-Qaeda presence in Yemen is something that worries not only Washington but Riyadh, too. The kingdom already says its main threat from Al-Qaeda comes from militants who fled its harsh crackdown to Yemen and now seek to operate across the border. On Aug. 27, a Yemen-based Saudi Al-Qaeda suicide bomber tried to assassinate the kingdom's assistant interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in Riyadh, but only wounded him. So, it is a growing concern.