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Does Iran play role in Yemen conflict?

Surge of fighting with Yemen rebels has raised concern about a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been drawn into the conflict.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 11, 2009

Saudi soldiers atop military vehicles line up for inspection Tuesday during the arrival of Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, assistant minister for defense and aviation, in Jizan near the border with Yemen.

Saudi Press Agency/Handout/REUTERS


Istanbul, Turkey

Iran offered on Wednesday to take part in a "collective approach" to resolving an escalating Shiite rebellion in Yemen that has pulled Saudi Arabia into the fighting. But analysts cautioned that hostilities did not yet add up to a proxy regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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One day before making the offer, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned regional players – though he did not name Saudi Arabia – to keep out of the Yemen fight: "Those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows," he said.

The surge of fighting, which has seen Saudi aircraft target Yemen's Houthi rebels along the border in the past week, has raised concern that Yemen's long-running local battle was beginning to follow the traditional sectarian faultlines that often define the Persian Gulf rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Yet in Yemen, that straightforward framework does not apply so easily.

Iran's influence may be marginal. "There is probably next to no Iranian involvement. I have seen no evidence for it [and] it's really a bit too far afield," says Joost Hiltermann, the deputy Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Washington.

"I think the Iranians are laughing. They want to [anger] the Saudis, no question," says Mr. Hiltermann, noting that Saudi Arabia would "never accept" Iran's offer to help bring stability, which would be seen in Riyadh as "provocative."

"The Iranians are just brilliant," he adds. "[They play] no role whatsoever, but they get all the credit, and so they are capitalizing on it."

Both Saudi media and Yemen have accused Iran of backing the Houthis, who take their name from the clan leader who started the rebellion in 2004.

In August, the Yemeni military launched "Operation Scorched Earth" in the northwest province of Saada to stamp out the rebel force of several thousand.

The Yemen government, which is also facing hostilities in the south, where Al Qaeda is active, is getting support from the US, which signed a cooperation agreement on military intelligence and training with President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Tuesday. Yemen's chief of staff, Ahmad Ali al-Ashwal, said the deal is aims to help in the "extermination of terrorism, smuggling and piracy," the state news agency Saba reported, according to Reuters.

In late October, Yemeni officials and local media reported the interception of a vessel with weapons from Iran, and the arrest of five Iranian "instructors" destined for the Houthi rebels. Iran denied the claims as a "media fabrication."