A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Houthis and Iran: a Building Subtext

A couple of weeks back I noted that the fact that so much of the (Sunni) Arab media was presenting the Houthi revolt in northern Yemen as a Shi‘ite/Sunni conflict (even though the President of Yemen is himself a Zaydi like the Houthi rebels), and that this was really a distortion of the situation. Now some of the unspoken agenda behind the broad brush treatment of Zaydis as Shi‘ite (which they are, with lots of footnotes) is becoming clear as not only the Saudi media but other Arab media not following the Saudi line (such as Al-Jazeera) begin to beat the drum of Iranian involvement in the Houthi rebellion.

Now, I have no direct intelligence about possible Iranian support for the Houthis. I don't doubt there is some sympathy and perhaps some indirect or even direct cooperation, though exactly how the contacts are pursued isn't clear to me. But there's been a drumbeat, recently, of propaganda linking Iran with the Houthis. And, at the same time, the whole Muhammad bin Nayef assasination row has led to new Saudi criticism of the Yemeni regime. The result is that there seems to be an emerging narrative: the Yemeni Government is hand-in-glove with Al-Qa‘ida, or at least looks the other way, while their enemies the rebel Houthis are Iranian stalking horses. Or, if you want to combine the two, here (in Arabic) is a Saudi article in Al-Watan saying that the Houthis are actually supporting Al-Qa‘ida.

I suspect there's a trace element level of truth in each assertion, but not a real actionable fact. But when you look at this Al-Jazeera piece on the Houthis, you see that it's not just the Saudis who are pushing the Iranian connection. In fact, in the Arabian peninsula generally, plus Egypt, Jordan, and a few other places, Iran may be the new Israel: the enemy on whom we blame all our troubles. (Which doesn't mean, of course, that the accusations aren't true.)

But the narrative is building. True, false, or in between, the charge is growing that Iran is fueling things in Yemen.

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