Are Saudi Arabia and Iran at war in Yemen?
Has a proxy war broken out in Yemen? The Los Angeles Times has reported that 100 Shiite rebels are dead and 100,000 refugees are on the move in the Saada region of northwestern Yemen after the Sunni-dominated government attacked rebel positions with tanks, artillery, and air strikes. According to The Economist, the rebels retaliated with volleys of Katyusha rockets. The current round of fighting, now in its second week, is the sixth uprising in this area since 2004.
What raises the profile of this development are accusations of foreign intervention in the conflict. The Yemeni government has accused Iran of providing funding and weapons to the Shiite rebels. Iran's news media has in turn reported that Saudi Arabia's military forces have joined in the fighting. The Saudi government acknowledges consultations with Yemen but denies any direct participation by its forces.
Evidence of foreign intervention in the conflict is sparse. But Yemen's foreign minister was at least concerned enough to summon Iran's ambassador his office. Meanwhile the Saudi and Yemeni defense ministries have stepped up consultations. According to The Economist, Iran's Arabic language news service has been reporting the latest round of fighting, including Saudi Arabia's support of the Yemeni government.
Even if the actual foreign material support in Yemen's civil strife is minimal, the conflict is probably the newest front in a broadening proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon is one front. Iranian attempts to gain influence over Shiite populations in eastern Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf is another. Some factions in Iran may feel obligated to support what they believe are oppressed Shiite minorities around the mostly Sunni Middle East. In the case of the rebellion in Yemen, some nervous officials in Riyadh may see an Iranian plan to achieve control over the Red Sea shipping lane.
Now there is another dimension to Saudi-Iranian competition. Despite having the largest crude oil reserves on the planet, the Saudi government recently announced plans to build a nuclear power plant. Even though it will take many years for Saudi Arabia to build up the necessary proficiency in nuclear engineering, Saudi policymakers must view the establishment of nuclear expertise as an essential strategic hedge.
A nuclear arms race and proxy wars were two prominent features of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. We should not be surprised to see that pattern of behavior repeat itself with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Compared with Saudi Arabia, Iran has a large head start. The Saudis will have to rely on their friends for protection while they try to catch up.