Despite Saudi Arabia’s announcement that its air campaign in Yemen was subsiding, several incidents this week – most with Iranian involvement – indicated that the crisis in the war-torn country was far from over. Saudi Arabia followed up its announcement of a new, more political phase in its Yemen campaign with more military strikes; an Iranian flotilla suspected of carrying weapons moved toward the Yemeni coast, then turned away after a tense standoff with US warships; and ”attacker-turned-peacemaker” Riyadh prevented an Iranian cargo plane from landing in Yemeni territory on the grounds that it lacked a permit, leading both sides to accuse each other of violating Yemeni sovereignty.
While some media outlets reported that Russia, too, was involved by helping Iran arm Yemen’s Houthi rebels, others, such as The Huffington Post, suggested Iran did not have full control – as evidenced by the Houthis’ reported defiance of its orders in taking the Yemeni capital (apparently, sending flotillas full of weapons isn’t an indication of direct involvement). On Foreign Affairs, which last year ran an op-ed by Mohammad Javad Zarif himself on Iran’s foreign policy, Alex Vatanka agreed that Iran has “tried to capitalize on the shifting dynamics in Yemen”. Despite the deployment of Iranian warships he then proceeded to claim that its role there has been “overstated.”
But others, such as The Telegraph’s Con Coughlin, argued that Tehran does play a substantial role in Yemen’s sectarian strife – which he described as “a proxy war between the Middle East’s two superpowers,” Saudi Arabia and Iran. On Al Jazeera, Martin Reardon likened the situation in Yemen to a Middle Eastern “Great Game,” with Tehran and Riyadh playing the parts of Russia and Great Britain. And while The Huffington Post’s Graham E. Fuller called the threat of “Iranian/Shi’ite imperialism” in the region “much hyped,” he added in the same breath that “Iran … seems to be pulling the pieces together of a new loose power coalition in the Middle East.”
And Yemen? Whether it is compared to Great Game-era Afghanistan or to a “tinderbox” in a regional cold war, the UN has warned it’s on the brink of “spiraling” into a “civil war” – one in which Iran has a substantial stake. Could it be possible that the press downplays Iran’s role in Yemen in order to salvage the nuclear agreement?