The latest remarks by Iran’s Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei should not be seen as an effort to dislodge the interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.
“I am neither in favour nor against it,” said Khamenei, elaborating, “I was never optimistic about negotiating with the US.”
In the same speech, he lashed out at Saudi Arabia accusing it of “committing genocide” in Yemen. He warned that the interference was a mistake and it would backfire on Riyadh.
His words should be viewed in light of three precautions: First that all sanctions should be lifted immediately – a point he has stressed upon all along; second, that IAEA inspectors “should not be allowed at all to penetrate into the country’s security and defensive boundaries under the pretext of supervision”.
Message to Khamenei
There is, however, a third aspect to Khamenei breaking his silence after one week and that relates to the developments in Yemen and in particular to the threatening tone used by US Secretary of State John Kerry about Iran.
Kerry warned that the US will not “stand by” and let Tehran destabilise the region, adding that Washington would support countries that feel threatened by Iran and would not “step away from our alliances and our friendships”.
Although this is the first time Kerry has divulged his position on Yemen vis a vis Iran, this carries a message to Khamenei that the nuclear diplomacy has not changed the US’ attitude towards Iran.
The escalation of Iran’s war rhetoric on Yemen has been overshadowed by the frenzy of diplomatic activity in Lausanne.
“The aggression on Yemen has been ordered by the US and carried out by its stooges in the region,” said Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, General Massoud Jazayeri in an interview with the Tasnim News Agency.
The commander of Iran’s Basij Force, General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, also condemned “the Saudi-led aggression” saying that Saudi Arabia is “fighting a proxy war designed and run by the US”. The head of Iran’s Judiciary Sadeq Larijani threatened that the military action in Yemen “will not remain unanswered”.
While the rhetoric is heated and the Saudi-Iran rivalry over regional domination is well-documented, and while Iran may be giving support to the Houthis, there are no indications that the government of Iran sees Yemen as a strategic priority. It is also well-documented that the primary drivers of tension and conflict in Yemen are local.
Iran’s interest in Yemen
The Houthis are a revivalist movement of the Zaidi offshoot of Shia Islam, which is largely unique to northern Yemen. They may welcome support but are unlikely to be taking orders from Iran.
While the rhetoric is heated and the Saudi-Iran rivalry over regional domination is well-documented, and while Iran may be giving support to the Houthis, there are no indications that the government of Iran sees Yemen as a strategic priority.
Moreover, Iran’s interest in Yemen dates back to before the Islamic Republic. The difference being that the shah of Iran cooperated closely with Riyadh as well as with the British administration that oversaw much of the south. The socialist state that succeeded the British rule in the south became friendly with the Islamic Republic due to .
Nevertheless, Iran is deeply concerned that with full US support the offensive would turn the situation drastically in favour of Saudi Arabia. Saudi air strikes are backed by Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE. Thus there is a danger of regionalisation of the conflict.
The Houthis are closing in on Aden, which controls the entrance to the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab strait, through which about 20,000 ships pass annually. The Iranian navy dispatched two vessels to the Gulf of Aden, off the southern coast of Yemen, on Wednesday. Their mission will last three months in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea and could be seen as supporting Houthis’ advance, but this is in fact a routine operation.
Iran is determined to continue its presence in the strategic waterways in the region and in holding onto its historic influence. That is why it does not look kindly to the US taking sides, backing Saudis seeking to drive back the rebels and restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled the country last month.
That is also why Iranian diplomats have been travelling across the region seeking support trying to deter countries from joining the Saudi-led action.
Iran took advantage of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Iran to try and change his mind over regional dynamics.
“We had detailed discussions on Yemen,” said President Hassan Rouhani about his meeting with Erdogan. “Both of us believe that we need to see the end of war and bloodshed in Yemen as soon as possible.”
When Khamenei met with Erdogan on Wednesday he told him that Iran stands against foreign military intervention in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen.
Among other attempts at gaining support on Yemen, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met the Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi in Muscat, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Atiyah, as well as China’s Special Envoy on Middle East Affairs Gong Xiaosheng. He called on them to support an “immediate halt to Saudi Arabia’s military attack against Yemen”.
While Yemen will remain an important foreign policy issue for Iran and an important sphere of influence, it does not compose a sufficient foreign policy priority for Iran to enter into military action in support of the Houthis. It is also very unlikely to be an issue regarded as taking precedence over the nuclear deal with the P5+1.
All indications are that Iran will stick to its official line of seeking a diplomatic local solution for Yemen that would guarantee Houthi prominence in the south.
Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.