Heavy artillery clashes between Yemen’s dominant Houthi rebel group and local fighters shook the southern cities of Taiz and Dalea after a Scud missile was launched toward Saudi Arabia. The fighting in Yemen already crossed the Saudi border in Jizan, where Saudi forces countered an attack of Houthi fighters. Last week, a car bomb killed and injured at least 50 near the headquarters of the Houthis group in Sanaa. That explosion echoed the failed peace talks in Geneva that battle ended last week without a ceasefire agreement. And so the battle continues.
The battle for Yemen is amongst the more recent ones in the Middle East but is also an old one – and one that can serve as a case study about theology, power brokers and regional party lines. Yemen is not just about Yemen, just like Iraq and Syria are not about Syria and Iraq. Yemen could not be explained without looking at a larger battle over the soul of Islam today and the nature of the Islamic Revolution. That battle begins in Teheran.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry goes back a long way. Prior to 1979, and under the late Shah, the two countries were under Nixon’s “twin pillars” policy that looked at Iran and Saudi Arabia as stabilizing factors in the region. Iran, under the Shah, emerged as the closer ally and invoked a certain amount of jealousy in Saudi Arabia. But it was the Islamic revolution that escalated the political rivalry between the two countries to another level.
The Saudis were first intrigued by the Islamic revolution in Iran and perhaps somewhat satisfied to see their powerful rival overthrown by a revolutionary, anti-American camp. With the stronger of the two pillars gone and replaced by an anti-American Islamic Regime, Saudis – the remaining “pillar” – were able to position themselves as the primary ally of the west. But the religious fervor sweeping the Persian Gulf was soon to shake Saudis to the core.
Shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Grand Mosque of Mecca was seized by extremist Wahhabis led by Juhayman Al-Otaybi, who had declared Muhammad Abdullah Al-Qahdani, his brother-in-law, to be the Muslim Mahdi (messiah). Juhayman held the Masque with about 500 of his followers as the entire Muslim world followed with trepidation.
Although as extremist Sunni Wahhabis, the group had no connection with Iran and was entirely home grown, it is fair to say that at least some of them were inspired by the 1979 revolution. After all, if Shiites, with their false beliefs could bring the powerful westernizing Iranian monarch down, surely they with their pure Islamic beliefs could do the same in Saudi Arabia.
Juhayman had declared that “the ruling Al Saud dynasty had lost its legitimacy,” for it was “corrupt,” “ostentatious” and had destroyed “Saudi culture” by its policy of “westernization.” Inspired or not, these were the exact grievances Khomeini had with the Pahlavi Dynasty.
Khomeini was quick to capitalize on the crisis. Without any evidence, he called the seizure of the Grand Mosque an American and Zionist plot to desecrate the holiest site in Islam. Anti-American riots soon followed in different parts of the Muslim world, including Turkey, UAE, and Pakistan, where the American embassy was attacked and set on fire.
Five days into the seizure, on Nov. 25, the Shiite world commemorates A’shura, which marks the death of Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. In the eastern city of Al-Qatif – and this time directly inspired by Khomeini’s repeated urging of Shiites all across the Middle East to rise up against their oppressors – people took to the streets to hold their traditional celebration.
The procession was banned by the Saudi authorities, and the security forces tried to stop it. Fighting broke out, and National Guard Units fired on the Shiites killing several. The news of the riots and killings in Al-Qatif spread quickly, inspired riots and swept other cities in the Eastern province, which are predominantly Shiite. Ironically, most of Saudi oil fields are also in the eastern province where the majority of Shiites reside. It took the Saudis almost 10 days before they could put the riots down. At least 25 Shiites were killed and many more were arrested.
If the Grand Mosque incident had nothing to do with Iran, The Shiite riots in the east were a different story. Just like today in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, Iran’s direct and indirect hand was visible everywhere.
Nine month later in September of 1980, Iraq under Saddam Hussein launched a military attack on Iran, which marked the beginning of a bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war in which more than a million perished. Saudi Arabia gave support to the Iraqi regime, a move that Iran never forgave.
In 1987 during the Hajj, Islamic regime in Iran inserted thousands of their hard-core supporters and intelligence officers into the crowd of 155,000 Iranian pilgrims who travelled to Mecca. Iran’s agents among the Iranian pilgrims took to the streets chanting “death to America, death to the Soviets and death to Israelis” and brandished Khomeini’s pictures.
Saudi authorities tried to break down the demonstrations, but violence got out of hand. According to the New York Times, quoting an official Saudi statement, “402 people were killed, including 275 Iranians, 85 Saudi citizens and security men, and 42 pilgrims of other nationalities.”
Cleverly, the Iranian agents refrained from chanting any slogans against the Saudis during the demonstrations. By limiting their chants to America, Soviet Union and Israel, they sought to discredit the Saudis and portray them as instruments of great powers not worthy of being the custodians of the holy mosques.
For decades now, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in an undeclared war for hegemony and influence in the Middle East. From Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and now Yemen, Iran’s Islamic regime has successfully been able to outmaneuver the Saudis and gain the ground and statute of a regional power broker. And this is why the battle of Yemen is a critical one.
The Zaidis, or the Shiites of Yemen, belong to one of the oldest branches of Shi’ism that is different from the Twelfers Shia of Iran. A Zaidi true believer is committed to a true Islamic rule and must work to complete the Islamic revolution. The Iranian Twelvers developed a more passive approach to the question of the revolution. They believed that the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, lives in occultation but will reappear as the promised redeemer (Mahdi) in order to establish the future Islamic state. But since his appearance is the key, the revolution should not yet be encouraged or even considered.
But this has changed with Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Khomeini changed the traditional attitude of the Twelvers towards the Islamic rule and called to start the revolution even in the absence of the true Imam – a view much closer to the Zeidi’s theological understanding. Gradually, many Zaidis began to believe that Khomeini’s Shiism is the true Zadism, and a political alliance was formed. This spells trouble for Saudis.
House of Saud draws much of its legitimacy from being the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam and, by extension, by being a nation ruled under Islam. From the early days of Islam, controlling the two holy sites in Macca and Medina has been both the source of legitimacy as well as the driving force for different Muslim leaders who sought to rule under the banner of Islam. Islamic regime in Iran is no different. Defeating Saudis in Yeman and bringing their ally Zaidis to power will only bring the Mullahs in Iran another step closer to fulfill their dreams of establishing a true Islamic empire. That is why neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can ignore Yemen and will fight to the end to control it.
Nir Boms and Shayan Arya, Analysts, Strategic Outlook
Dr. Nir Boms is a co-founder of CyberDissidensts.org and a research fellow at the Dayan center for Middle East Studies. Shayan Arya is an Iranian expert and Human Rights activist and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran (Liberal Democrat).