International pressure on Saudi Arabia has mounted since the murder of writer and activist Jamal Khashoggi, including heightened scrutiny of the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen. Yet while the Yemen war is a human catastrophe, it is often misunderstood as merely a civil war, or an exercise in Saudi adventurism.
It fact, Yemen is the latest theater of the decades-old conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has been intensifying since Iraq fell into the Iranian orbit in the wake of the 2003 regime change in Baghdad. By the time U.S. troops left Iraq in late 2011, the Arab Spring was well under way. Amid the turmoil, Iran not only consolidated its position in Iraq but projected its power much further in pursuit of its goal: a contiguous sphere of influence from its western border to the Mediterranean.
Saudi Arabia has not been able to do much to block Iran’s expanding footprint across the northern Middle East. But Tehran’s efforts to exploit conflicts on the Arabian Peninsula are a red line for Riyadh. That explains the kingdom’s unprecedented, and successful, move to crush a Shiite uprising in Bahrain in early 2011. Four years later, when the Iranian-backed Houthi movement seized power in Yemen, the Saudis launched a massive war to prevent Iran from establishing an outpost on its southern flank. But unlike in Bahrain, the Saudi intervention in Yemen turned into a quagmire.
There is a dire need to alleviate the human suffering in Yemen. But a negotiated settlement that leaves the Houthis in a dominant position would turn the country into an Iranian proxy. That would be bad not only for the Saudis but for the broader international community, especially the U.S. Ansarallah—Arabic for “Helpers of God” and the formal name of the Houthi movement—is unabashedly anti-American. A Tehran-dominated Yemen would only breed further conflict in the region.
Saudi Arabia miscalculated when it went to war in Yemen, and the Khashoggi murder is an affront to civilized norms. Even so, it is critical that the West not press so hard on Saudi Arabia that Iran emerges as the beneficiary.
The article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on November 16, 2018.