Will Iran achieve regional hegemony?


On September 14, 2019, 19 drones and cruise missiles hit the storage tanks and distribution towers of the Saudi Arabian oil plants in Abqaiq and Khurais near the coast of the Persian Gulf. Fires immediately broke out, additionally damaging the two plants and reducing Saudi Arabia's oil production to a little less than half for a few weeks. Not only were two of the most important facilities in the Saudi Arabian oil industry hit, but also the heart of the world's oil supply, which fell by around five percent in one fell swoop.

The Houthi rebels from Yemen confessed to the attack on the same day, but doubts quickly arose about the confession. The attack seemed too demanding for the Yemeni militia to actually be responsible for it. US intelligence agencies also quickly discovered that the drones and cruise missiles had launched from Iranian territory. In addition to the fact that the attack was the preliminary climax of a dramatic escalation in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the course of events showed how closely the Houthis cooperated with the Iranians in 2019. They committed themselves to a sensational attack that could easily have provoked a US military strike - probably because they wanted to enable Iran to deny the authorship of the attack. This showed that the Houthis had become a willing instrument of Iranian politics.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates started a war in March 2015 to prevent the emergence of a "Yemeni Hezbollah" on its southern border, as politicians and diplomats in both countries have been repeating like a mantra. But they never came close to crushing the rebel group: Rather, over the years the Houthis shot down hundreds of ballistic missiles on Saudi Arabian territory. When these were intercepted more and more frequently in 2018, the insurgents relied on Iranian drones and cruise missiles, which are more difficult to stop. The rebels, whose relations with Iran had remained rather superficial until 2014, had become the threat that had initially been the main argument for the war in the course of the war.

Houthis seize power

The Houthis and their current leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi present themselves as the representatives of all North Yemeni Zaidis. These make up between 30 and 40 percent of the Yemeni population, and their rulers, called Imam, ruled Yemen from the late 9th century until 1962. [1] Although the Zaidis are Shiites, they are much closer to Sunniism than the other Shiite faiths. In addition to socio-economic improvements and more political participation, as early as the 1980s they mainly demanded cultural and religious rights, which they saw endangered by the policies of the central government. The reason for this were attempts to proselytize by some Salafist preachers and groups supported by Saudi Arabia in the Zaidi regions in the north. The government in Sana'a promoted the Salafists because it feared that it could face political competition in the form of the leading Zaidi families.

From the late 1990s, the Houthis began building a political movement with their own militia. Between 2004 and 2010 these units waged a guerrilla war against the regime's troops and tribal militias allied with them, which ended in a draw but devastated northern Yemen. The regime of Ali Abdullah Salih, who ruled from 1978 to 2012, portrayed the Houthi rebels as terrorists and - with reference to their "Shiite" identity - as agents of Shiite Iran. the Yemeni president succeeded in convincing the Saudi Arabian leadership of its correctness. Riyadh even intervened on the part of the government in November 2009, but it did not succeed in decisively weakening the Houthis or preventing the smuggling of weapons into their area.

In 2011, the Arab Spring protests also reached Yemen, as a result of which President Salih was forced to resign in November. After the Gulf States intervened under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, Salih made way for a transitional government under the leadership of his previous deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. At the same time, the National Dialogue Conference began in March 2012 and was supposed to work out a new constitution within two years. The Houthis were also involved, but withdrew from the deliberations in January 2014. They had already used the previous two years to consolidate their positions in their home province of Saada and expand them in the surrounding areas. In 2014 they went on the offensive by first capturing the province of Amran and then invading Sanaa in September and taking control of the capital.

At this point the Hadi government was so weakened that it was unable to oppose the Houthis. On the one hand, by withdrawing subsidies for fuel, it triggered protests in August 2014, which the Houthis used to prepare for the capture of Sanaa. On the other hand, she had little control over the security forces, some of whom had remained loyal to former President Salih. This and the Houthis buried their long hostility in 2014, so that the security forces did not oppose the rebels when they took the city. As a result, the two sides even allied and advanced together to the south, where they tried to take Aden. Both were united by the hostility towards Saudi Arabia, which is part of the ideology of the Houthis, but which arose in Salih mainly because he made Riyadh jointly responsible for his loss of power in 2011. The new alliance showed considerable strength, because its then around 20,000 fighters united the tried and tested and highly motivated guerrilla forces of the Houthis with the well-equipped and trained Republican Guard, which remained loyal to Salih. [2]

Iran is expanding

When the Houthi-Salih alliance took Sanaa, the situation in the Near and Middle East was marked by strong tensions between the regional great powers Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their conflict has determined politics in the Middle East since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran and has not only intensified massively since 2011, but also has an ever increasing impact on the entire region. The argument is first power-political in nature, because Iran has been a revisionist power for four decades, working towards hegemony in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, while Saudi Arabia tries to maintain the status quo. Secondly there is also an ideological front position, because Iran represents a Shiite-Islamist, republican and revolutionary state ideology, while the Saudi-Arabian social idea is Sunni-Islamic, monarchical and very conservative. The main cause of the escalation and internationalization of this conflict from 2011 onwards was a change in Tehran's policy, which took advantage of the unrest and the ensuing instability to expand its presence in the region.

Until 2011, the main concern of the revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei and the military-intelligence complex he led in Iranian politics was to deter a possible attack on Iran by the USA, Israel and regional allies. To this end, the Revolutionary Guards developed ballistic missiles of different ranges that could reach regional states such as Saudi Arabia or Israel. In the Persian Gulf and on the Strait of Hormuz, the Navy of the Revolutionary Guard was preparing for a kind of "guerrilla war at sea" against US units and civil shipping. [3] Beyond its own borders, Iran had built the "Axis of Resistance", an alliance that included Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq, the Palestinian Hamas and the "Islamic Jihad" in Gaza. When a civil war began in Syria in 2011, as a result of which Tehran's only state ally, the Assad regime, came under pressure, the Iranian leadership went on the offensive.

In support of Assad, Tehran sent an expeditionary force to help make up for the shortage of personnel in the Syrian troops. The most important component were units of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which steadily expanded their presence in Syria from 2011. There were also Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan who fought under the command of the Jerusalem Corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Her greatest achievement was the capture of East Aleppo in December 2016, which ushered in the regime's victory over the insurgents. At the same time, the Iranians tried to build a military infrastructure, which - along the lines of southern Lebanon - was to form a second front against Israel. [4]

The Jerusalem Corps acted similarly in Iraq, where its influence had been strong for years. In June 2014 the state security forces collapsed in the fight against the "Islamic State" (IS). An alliance of Shiite militias called "People's Mobilization" was formed, dominated by anti-Iranian organizations such as Badr, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq. They played an important role in the fight against the jihadists, which ended with the recapture of Mosul in July 2017. In the years that followed, the Iraqi government failed to gain control of the militias; rather, the Iranians expanded their influence on politics and the military in Iraq. Many Iraqis saw in Qasem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Jerusalem Corps, the actual ruler of Iraq. [5]

The Revolutionary Guards also saw an opportunity to expand their influence in Yemen - a country in which Iran had shown no interest for a long time. It is true that the conditions here were worse, because Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias are religiously and ideologically much closer to the Islamic Republic than the Houthis. But apart from ex-President Salih - who had fought them brutally for six years - the Houthis had no supporters, which the Iranians saw as an opportunity.

The religious conflict also played a role here, because the traditional antagonism between Shiites and Sunnis has been an important political factor in the region since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and intensified since the Iraq war in 2003. The cause for the outbreak of hostilities is usually the collapse of states and societies, which forces people to seek protection from their respective ethnic groups or religious communities. Because of this constellation, the Shiite Islamic Republic seeks and finds its allies among the Shiites in the region, such as Hezbollah or Iraqi Shiite militias, or among groups that are so isolated that they cannot find any other protecting power, such as the Palestinian Hamas. Both are true of the Yemeni Houthis, so that Iran supported them even before 2014.

Arms shipments, however, increased in line with the rise of the Houthis in 2013 and 2014, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards continued to expand their support after the Houthis captured Sanaa. There was also accumulated evidence that Hezbollah instructors were helping the Houthis to form an even more powerful force. [6] Iran also supplied more and more missiles with which the Yemeni rebels began to bombard Saudi Arabia. While in the early days they mainly targeted cities and areas near the border, they also attacked the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh several times from the end of 2017. [7] From 2018 onwards, there were also increasing reports of attacks using drones and cruise missiles, which finally showed that Iran was behind the Houthis - simply because the Houthis are unable to manufacture these weapons.

Saudi Arabia intervenes

The hostility of the Houthis towards Saudi Arabia - in contrast to their alliance with Iran - has a long history. The Kingdom's goal is to ward off potential threats to its own security at an early stage and has therefore been influencing Yemen's politics for decades. An important reason for this is that the population of the Saudi Arabian southwest has close tribal, religious and cultural relations with the neighboring state. That this area became part of the kingdom was the result of a campaign of conquest that ended in the Saudi-Arabian-Yemeni war of 1934. Since then, the rulers in Riyadh have been unsure of the loyalty of the inhabitants of the "south", as the region is called in the Saudis, and fear Yemeni influences.

Despite these interests, two reasons led to the fact that Riyadh did not fight the Houthis early and decisively: First Her priority since 2007 was the fight against Yemeni al-Qaeda. The organization took in many Saudi Arabian fighters who primarily aimed to bring the armed struggle to their homeland. As a result of this development, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for combating terrorism, began to deal more intensively with the situation in the neighboring country from 2007 onwards. The actually leading department in Yemen politics, the Ministry of Defense, which pushed for the fight against the Houthis and was responsible for the short war against them in 2009, lost its influence. As a result, the fight against the Houthis was not a top priority, as it was again from 2015.

The bureaucratic conflict reflected Secondly a more fundamental problem reflected in the Saudi Arabian leadership. The power elite in Riyadh was already very old in 2007 due to a succession regulation, according to which the eldest son of the state's founder ibn Saud (1880–1953) succeeds his deceased brother and the government business was physically and intellectually overwhelmed. The leading princes of around a dozen kept looking for solutions by consensus, which further slowed the country's politics. Officials from neighboring countries have been complaining more and more frequently about the paralysis of Saudi Arabian politics since 2005.

The situation did not change until 2011/12, when the interior and defense ministers, both of whom had also been crown princes in succession, died and the Arab Spring forced the Saudi leadership to act. The kingdom led the counter-revolution, but initially became active where it feared that Iran could use the instability in the region to expand its influence. In March 2011, together with the United Arab Emirates, it sent troops and police to Bahrain to help the security forces there put down the protests of the Shiite majority. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama saw the demonstrations as an Iranian-led coup attempt. In Syria, Saudi Arabia even went on the offensive by supporting Sunni insurgents against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Riyadh was primarily concerned with overthrowing Iran's only state ally and replacing it with a prosaic government - without success, as was shown in Aleppo in 2016 at the latest. [8]

From 2015 onwards, Saudi Arabian politics became even more determined, but also more impulsive and aggressive. The most important reason was the gradual seizure of power by Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud. His father Salman ascended the throne in January 2015 and named his favorite son Minister of Defense. He took the opportunity, gradually took over the affairs of state and switched off his competitors until he was appointed Crown Prince in June 2017. [9] His first landmark decision at the beginning of 2015 was to intervene militarily with the United Arab Emirates against the Houthis in Yemen.

War in yemen

On the night of March 25-26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began their intervention against the Houthis in Yemen. Their goal was to drive the rebels out of the capital Sanaa and to restore the internationally recognized government of President Hadi, who fled from Aden to Riyadh in 2015. The allies closed the Yemeni airspace and imposed a sea blockade to force the Houthis to surrender.

The coalition's biggest problem was the lack of ground troops. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not have sufficient contingents of their own to deploy. Saudi Arabia may have hoped that Egypt or Pakistan would send military to make up for this weakness. Financially, Pakistan is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabian support, which enabled the country's military to develop its own nuclear program. Egypt, on the other hand, receives more money from the Emirates, which have saved the regime of Egyptian President al-Sisi from bankruptcy several times since 2013. Nevertheless, both states refused to provide troops, which is why Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were forced to make up for the shortage of personnel by recruiting mercenaries.Sudan and Senegal, for example, sent regular troops for which Saudi Arabia paid. [10] The United Arab Emirates also sent their own mercenary troops into the field, which had been built up in the Gulf for years. The two armed forces also worked in a division of labor: Saudi Arabia concentrated on air strikes in the north, while the Emirates were more active with ground troops in the south-east and south of the country. Overall, the Emirati military showed itself to be much better prepared; his special forces, for example, were responsible for taking Aden in July 2015, while their Saudi Arabian brothers in arms had no similar successes. [11]

An offensive against the Yemeni highlands ruled by the Houthis was hopeless without reinforcement of the troops. In the course of the war, Riyadh tried to compensate for the deficit by intensifying cooperation with the Yemeni Islah party. The party is an alliance of Islamists, tribal militias and some Salafists and was the main opponent of the Houthis from 2011 to 2013. In 2013, however, it lost the support of Riyadh, which at the time decided to fight the rise of Islamists in the Arab world as a whole. The weakness of the internal Yemeni opponent was one reason for the triumphant advance of the Houthis in 2014/15. The reorientation of the Saudi Arabian Yemen policy, however, met with resistance from Abu Dhabi, which had been adopting a radical anti-Islamist policy since 2012 and rejected any cooperation with al-Islah. Instead, the United Arab Emirates built on an alliance of South Yemeni militias. [12]

The lack of ground troops, strategic divergences and the strength of the Houthis prevented military progress. As a result, a military stalemate developed at the end of 2015, which lasted until 2018. Rather, the air strikes combined with the sea blockade resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. One reason for this was that the Saudi Arabian Air Force quickly expanded its targets from purely military to all infrastructure, so that ports, power stations, roads and bridges were destroyed. There were also numerous attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets of all kinds, such as food factories. The result was a supply crisis, hunger and the spread of epidemics, especially cholera.

When these measures did not make the Houthis surrender, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched an attack on al ‑ Hudaidah in June 2018. The city's port is the last major connection line between the Yemeni highlands and the outside world. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may have hoped to force the Houthis to negotiate by conquering al ‑ Hudaidah. The allies succeeded in penetrating the outskirts of the city, but international resistance grew. The danger that the ingestion would lead to a further worsening of the already catastrophic humanitarian situation in northern Yemen seemed too great. [13]

The United Arab Emirates withdraw

It was above all the resistance of the US Congress in Washington that induced Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to agree to a ceasefire agreement for the province of al ‑ Hudaidah in December 2018. This was brokered by the special envoy of the United Nations, Martin Griffiths, during talks in Stockholm. Implementation initially proved difficult, but in May 2019 the Houthis announced their withdrawal from al ‑ Hudaidah. But instead of helping to calm things down, the conflict intensified again when the rebels resumed their attacks against Saudi Arabia with rockets, drones and cruise missiles, which they had largely ceased since the end of 2018. How threatening the situation was became clear in June 2019 when the Houthis attacked the civilian airport of Abha in the Saudi Arabian southwest with cruise missiles and injured 26 people. [14]

In this situation, the United Arab Emirates announced the withdrawal of their troops from Yemen in June 2019. Some observers interpreted this move as a reaction to the situation around the Strait of Hormuz, which had worsened dramatically in May and June, parallel to the Houthi air strikes on Saudi Arabian targets. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards carried out attacks on several oil tankers in close proximity to the United Arab Emirates. In addition, the Iranian military shot down a US surveillance drone, whereupon US President Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory strike, but canceled it again shortly before the start. Supporters of this interpretation believed that Abu Dhabi withdrew the troops so that they could be used to protect the homeland in the event of an escalation. [15]

It is very possible that the escalation in the Persian Gulf was a motive for the Emirati withdrawal. In addition, the Emirates - like their Saudi Arabian allies - had worked not only to smash the Houthis, but also to control ports. After the capture of Aden in 2015, the Emirati military and its Yemeni allies occupied all major Yemeni ports with the exception of al-Hudaidah. The United Arab Emirates also took over the strategically important islands of Perim - at the entrance to the Red Sea - and Socotra - at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden. On the opposite coast they had taken over an air force base and the port of Assab in Eritrea and expanded their presence in Berbera in Somaliland and Bosaso in Puntland. Abu Dhabi was clearly aimed at controlling the sea route through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. [16]

In the spring of 2019, the United Arab Emirates achieved this goal and did not give up their control of the most important ports and airfields in the following months, despite their withdrawal announcement. In addition, Abu Dhabi has strong allies in Yemen who have continued to receive support. Most of the militias built up by the Emirates from 2015 belonged to the South Yemeni separatist movement, which wants a secession from the north. To this end, they formed the "Southern Transitional Council" in May 2017, which took control of the city of Aden in battles against units of the Hadi government. However, the government did not have the means to defeat the trained and equipped militias of the Transitional Council set up by the United Arab Emirates. In this way, the separatists ensured that the Emirates continued to play an important role in South Yemen. In addition, Abu Dhabi did not withdraw all of its troops, so that there was always the possibility of intervening again on a larger scale. [17]

No end to the war

Throughout 2019, Saudi Arabia continued the war against the Houthis without its allies. The main obstacle was the constant clashes between units of the Hadi government and the separatist opponents in the south. In consultation with the United Arab Emirates, however, Riyadh managed to persuade the warring Yemenis to sign a peace agreement, which was concluded in November. Before the agreement, Abu Dhabi withdrew its last troops from Aden, whereupon the situation there calmed down.

Without the support of the Emirati troops, however, a victory for the Saudis had become utterly impossible. From the point of view of the leadership in Riyadh, successes were urgently needed because the Houthis actually threatened the security of Saudi Arabia: In the fifth year of the war, the attacks on the Saudi Arabian south showed that the Houthis actually became a kind of "Yemeni Hezbollah" Saudi Arabian and Emirati officials had repeatedly warned against. In addition, the attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil plants, which began in Iran and not in Yemen, were a show of force by the alliance between Tehran and the Houthis. They painfully demonstrated to Riyadh how little the Saudi Arabian air defense had to counter the drones and cruise missiles of their opponents.

There is much to suggest that 2019 marked a turning point in the Yemen war. The withdrawal of the Emirati troops from the war against the Houthis, the weakness of the Saudis in the face of the attacks by Iranians and Houthis and the lack of a serious internal Yemeni opponent for the Houthis show that neither side will be able to fight the war for the foreseeable future to decide. This would speak in favor of a negotiated solution, especially in view of the catastrophic situation in the country. The constellation in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran makes such an agreement difficult: If Riyadh ended the Yemen war today, it would amount to a severe defeat in the major regional conflict. It is unclear whether the Saudi Arabian leadership would be willing to pay such a high price for calming the situation. Riyadh may still be speculating on the outbreak of the conflict between the United States and Iran, which would rearrange the balance of power in the Middle East.