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Is There Evidence That Yemeni Rebels are Backed By Iran?


OK, we've heard the fight in Yemen described as a proxy war. That's because it is presumed that Yemen's rebels are backed by Iran. By fighting them, Arab nations are seen as striking a blow against Iran. And the United States is supporting Arab nations as they're seen as fighting Iran, which is also negotiating a nuclear deal with the United States. To sort out what's happening here, we've called journalist Robin Wright. She's a contributor to The New Yorker, also at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center. Robin, welcome to the program.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what evidence actually shows that the Yemeni rebels are backed by Iran, if any?

WRIGHT: Well, the Iranians are not playing the kind of highly visible role that they are in backing the Shiite militias or the government in neighboring Iraq. This is a very different kind of involvement. They have supported the Houthis because they are a Shiite minority, and Iran has a long tradition of helping the Shiite minorities across the region. But it is not to the level of sending, you know, hundreds of military advisers. I think it's largely equipment. But it's - you know, Yemen is impenetrable. And it's hard to quantify exactly what role they're playing, but it's clearly not as highly visible.

INSKEEP: I guess we can say that Iran's foreign minister did protest against the Arab intervention this week. He said - he disagreed with it.

WRIGHT: Yes, and I think the Iranians look at the conflict in part from the prism of the Houthis, who feel they are a marginalized minority that the unity government created after the Arab Spring and the ouster of a long-standing dictator did not represent their interests. They've long been challenging the center of the country.

INSKEEP: OK. So there is some link between the Houthi rebels - or believed to be a link - between the Houthi rebels and Iran, but not as strong as it might be with some other groups. What about from the Saudi Arabian perspective? They're leading this military intervention. Do the Saudis see themselves as fighting against Iranian influence here?

WRIGHT: Well, I think there are a number of different issues that fuel this conflict. And the first and foremost is that - and the Saudis have said this - that they are backing an internationally recognized leader and want him to return to power. They think that's the route to return some degree of stability to Yemen. And they, of course, fear the spillover on Saudi Arabia. There's a 900-mile border.

But secondly, the conflict is fueled by rival sects within Islam, and the Saudis are very worried about the Houthis, the Shiite offshoot, becoming the major power in the country. So there is that component to it. And the subtext, of course, is the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence in the region in control of the Persian Gulf, of strategic waterway.

And then there's the even bigger issue of, which country is the primary player in relations with the world major power, meaning the United States? Since the 1979 Revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have basically taken over the role that Iran once played, when Iran and Israel were the two pillars of U.S. policy. And now that Iran is doing a deal possibly with the United States on a nuclear question, the Saudis fear, seriously, that the Iranians will return as the larger country, the more populous country, as a major player in the region and will make Saudi Arabia less important. So this conflict is very complicated.

INSKEEP: Well, suddenly though, we have the United States openly supporting not Iran, but Saudi Arabia in its intervention in Yemen. Could that have wider effects in this balance of power and this anxiety that you describe through the region?

WRIGHT: Well, the United States takes the position that it backs the president, Hadi, as well, that he was internationally recognized not just by the Gulf neighbors who helped put him in power during a period of transition. So I think the U.S. looks at it from the political point of view. But, you know, this is not likely to have an impact, for example, on the nuclear negotiations in Switzerland this weekend.

INSKEEP: And why not?

WRIGHT: Because I think after 18 months those talks have reached a maturity and a sturdiness, that everyone sitting at that table is really focused on the question of preventing Iran from getting a bomb or, in the Iranian case, lifting sanctions, that that's their first priority. But the danger is that this war goes on for a long time. Saudi Arabia can't hope to use just airstrikes to beat back the Houthis. And who knows how that plays out in the aftermath, if there is a deal in Lausanne?

INSKEEP: And a reminder here that nuclear deal or no, there will still be many conflicts in the region. Robin Wright, thank you very much.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Robin Wright is with the U.S. Institute of Peace, also with the Woodrow Wilson International Center and writes for The New Yorker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.