Majid Rafizadeh Aug 27, 2016
While Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif set the tone, they do not enjoy the final say in Iran’s policy towards Yemen.
Instead, the major decision makers are Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Although there exist religious affinities between Iran and the Houthis, the convergence of a number of strategic interests is the main driving force behind Tehran-Houthi commonalities.
Mr Khamenei and the IRGC are utilising several means when it comes to Yemen’s war.
Iran’s supreme leader is heavily reliant on rhetoric and social media to spread his message on Yemen.
Currently, Iran’s message is that the war in Yemen is the struggle of “the oppressed” against the oppressors.
In addition, one of the core revolutionary slogans of the Islamic republic is that Iran views itself as the saviour of “the oppressed”.
As a result, Iran’s narrative towards the conflict in Yemen is placed within Tehran’s broader ideological principles.
The Supreme Leader has used his recent speeches to emphasise this principle.
Iran projects its role in Yemen as limited to humanitarian assistance in order to help the “oppressed”.
Iranian leaders have continually denied giving any military and weapons assistance to the Houthis, but why does it issue such denials?
An Iranian diplomat once told me it is not in its interests to advertise the deployment of hard power against the will of the majority.
Another layer of complexity is that the Iranian government views the war in Yemen through the terms of its rivalry with Saudi Arabia.
From the perspective of the Iranian leadership, the tension is deep-rooted: it is sectarian, ethnic, ideological, geopolitical and strategic.
Economically and financially speaking, for Iran, its role in Yemen is not especially costly.
Iran does not spend billions of dollars in Yemen as it does in Syria to maintain the bankrupt power of Bashar Al Assad.
In addition, Yemen does not pose a national security threat to Iran as it does to Saudi Arabia.
Although Iran’s role in Yemen is partially sectarian, it is mainly ideological, as Iranian leaders attempt to tip the regional balance of power and unsettle the regional order.
However, geopolitically and strategically speaking, Iran also uses Yemen to advance its revolutionary ideology.
Iran can also exploit its ties with the Houthis as an additional leverage against Saudi Arabia and its allies.
This leverage can be used by Iran as a strategic bargaining chip in future negotiations or to pressure Riyadh to change direction.
Although Iran pursues a sectarian and ideological agenda in Yemen, Iranian leaders skilfully attempt to avoid using sectarian language within this narrative. This is due to one of Tehran’s key revolutionary principles, which projects the supreme leader as the supposed leader of the Islamic world.
Mr Khamenei’s official website refers to him as the supreme leader of Muslims. Mr Khamenei has accused the West and its allies in the region of using sectarian language to divide and rule.
Iran’s goal in Yemen is anchored in creating a political reality out of the Houthis, as it did with Hizbollah in Lebanon.
This is to ensure Tehran’s influence in a country which borders its regional competitor.
Based on Mr Khamenei’s rhetoric and IRGC actions, the likelihood of Iran compromising in Yemen is very remote.
As a result, direct negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, with the mediating presence of the UN, would be a practical approach.
Dr Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American Havard scholar and president of the International American Council on the Middle East