Foreign Policy Blogs

Got a Shia Rebellion? Solution: Blame Iran.

IDPs in North Yemen

IDPs in North Yemen

Anytime there is a Shia rebellion in the Arab world, Iran gets excoriated.  Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have blamed Iran for fomenting Shia unrest in their country, and now Yemen is following the same footsteps.  A leading Yemeni religious leader has accused Iran of inciting violence in the north of the country, where a predominantly Shia group, known as the Houthi fighters, is waging a war against the government.  Al-Jazeera reported that Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zandani, the head of Yemen’s Imam University, told supporters that Iran was trying to promote the Shia ideology in the country by backing the Houthi fighters. “The way events are moving in this country latest indicates to us that Iran wants to export the Shia ideology by force, which we utterly reject,” al-Zandani said.  Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi has previously accused Iranian media of bias toward Shi’ite rebels fighting government troops in northern Yemen, warning it could take unspecified steps in response.  Saudi-owned Arab media has also inculpated Iran for funding the rebels.

The current conflict dates back to Yemen’s 1994 civil war, when the Wahhabis, an Islamic group adhering to a strict version of Sunni Islam found in neighboring Saudi Arabia, helped the government in its fight against the secessionist south.  Zaydis (branch of Shis Islam practiced by the Houthi rebels) complain the government has subsequently allowed the Wahabis too strong a voice in Yemen.  The last five years of fighting against the armed Houthi group were sparked in 2004, when the government forces killed Hussein al-Houthi, a Zaydi religious leader and a former parliamentarian on whose head the government had placed a $55,000 bounty.  Al-Houthi’s brothers now lead the movement.  For more information, here is an Al Jazeera article on this topic.

Iran has denied any involvement in the conflict, stating “Iran has always emphasized sovereignty, independence and national unity of Yemen.”

While Iran’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict is disputable, what is not disputable is the human rights abuses taking place in Yemen:

Between February 2007 and July 2008 the government imposed a total information blackout on Sada governorate. It has clamped down on media coverage, banning local and international journalists from traveling anywhere in the governorate, threatening journalists covering the conflict, and arbitrarily arresting internet webmasters and others with information on civilian casualties. The government cut off most mobile phone subscribers, allowing only a few government-vetted individuals access to the network.

The result of the governments systematic, sustained, and non-transparent policy of limiting access and information is that tens of thousands of civilians directly affected by the war have been left to suffer, their plight hidden from the rest of Yemen and the outside world. The denial of humanitarian access is in contravention of international humanitarian law that provides that a civilian population is entitled to receive humanitarian relief essential to its survival (Human Rights Watch, Invisible Civilians).

Here is another Al Jazeera article describing the humanitarian disaster in North Yemen.

While it is easy to blame Iran for the unrest in Yemen, the truth of the matter is that the Yemeni government’s brutal actions have instigated this crisis.

Similarly, here is a Human Rights Watch report on the treatment of Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia.  The report details the discrimination experienced by the Shi’ite population in Saudi Arabia at the hands of the government in education, the justice system, and, especially, religious freedom.  Therefore, next time there is news about a Shia rebellion in Saudi Arabia, it’s not Iran’s fault, but rather the Saudi government is culpable for not listening to its population grievances.

I am not arguing that Iran is an innocent bystander, but that it is unfair to blame all Shia unrest in the Arab world on Iran.  These Shia rebellions start due to the systematic discrimination they face and that is the fault of that country’s government.

Photo taken from Al Jazeera.



Sahar Zubairy

Sahar Zubairy recently graduated from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas- Austin with Masters in Global Policy Studies. She graduated from Texas A&M University with Phi Beta Kappa honors in May 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. In Summer 2008, she was the Southwest Asia/Gulf Intern at the Henry L. Stimson Center, where she researched Iran and the Persian Gulf. She was also a member of a research team that helped develop a website investigating the possible effects of closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by Iran.

Great Decisions Discussion group