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.
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."
Houthis tell Saudi Arabia to end attacks
A Houthi commander, speaking to Al Jazeera TV, called on Saudi Arabia to end its attacks. He also rejected the accusations that it received Iranian help.
The Houthis had "no links with any foreign political agenda," said Abdul Malik al-Houthi. He stated that there was no way for Iran to get weapons to the remote war zone, and noted that "weapons are largely available in Yemen."
A Saudi source also told Agence France-Presse that there was no evidence of active Iranian involvement in the Yemen conflict.
"This gets played off as Sunni-Shia, and it's wrong," says Hiltermann of ICG. "The Shia of Yemen are more Sunni than any other Shia in the world. And the Sunni of Yemen are more Shia than any Sunni in the world."
Despite some boilerplate anti-Western and anti-Israeli statements, the Houthis "don't have any serious ideology or set of grievances, for that matter," argues Hiltermann. "It was just a few angry guys who in 2004 stepped out of the political process and started a little rebellion."
But the government response has aggravated matters. "Due to the heavyhanded techniques of the government, over time, this has grown into an entirely different thing," he adds. "Now the population has been bombed into a major grievance. Their houses are gone and they have no compensation, so now you have a real conflict."
Rebels' tactical advantage?
The government accuses the Houthis of wanting to restore the leadership role of their Zaydi sect, which existed as an imamate until overthrown in a 1962 coup.
"Although the Houthi forces lack aircraft and armored vehicles, they arguably have a tactical advantage … owing to their numbers as well as their skillful use of land mines," wrote Persian Gulf expert Simon Henderson in an analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Tuesday. "Houthi websites show rallies with high attendance, along with disciplined training sequences reminiscent of Hezbollah activities in Lebanon."
Houthis charge that Saudi Arabia allowed Yemeni forces to attack from Saudi soil, and claim in the past week to have captured soldiers inside Yemeni territory. The Houthis staged a cross-border operation and killed one Saudi policeman and took control of two villages on the Saudi side of the mountainous border.
The Saudi air attacks and shelling forced the Houthis back across the border, where Saudi aircraft pursued them. The rebels have charged that Saudi Arabia is now trying to establish a buffer zone inside Yemen, along the border.
"The Saudis are being dragged into it, and I don't think they are particularly happy about it," says Hiltermann. Riyadh has supported Yemen, but the "government is so weak and dysfunctional that the stuff [Yemen] gets is sold [down the line] – or sold to the Houthis or gets captured in battle. That's why the conflict has dragged on in a way, because the government has been incapable of neither suppressing [it], nor negotiating a way out of it."