• 12 November 2009
  • Posted By Bardia Mehrabian
  • Diplomacy, Human Rights in Iran

A Proxy War in Yemen?

The protracted conflict in Northern Yemen has become “a bit” more complicated – sarcasm intended – with Saudi Arabia joining the fray in attempting to destroy the Houthi rebels. However, what has become the source of serious debate is not so much the heavy fighting that is most likely taking and displacing so many lives, but whether Iran – according to both the Saudi and Yemeni government – is actually supporting the Houthi rebellion.

A recent article by Scott Peterson suggests that an Iranian-Houthi connection is more fiction than fact, and posits that such hyperbole distracts from the Houthis’ actual claims of mistreatment by the Yemeni government. As the article points out:

“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.

A Saudi source…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.’”

Hiltermann’s observation of Saudi and Yemeni spin to play this off as a conflict of religions between state actors, undermines the grievances that the Houthis are actually fighting for. The Houthi are predominantly the “Fiver” sect of Shi’a Islam, meaning they believe in the first four Imams (contending on the fifth Imam), as opposed to the “Twelver” sect, which is the state sanctioned religion of the Islamic Republic.

Lewis Coser – a luminary on the study of social conflict – suggests groups that tend to be close in nature, yet deviate on certain core values have the potential to undermine the social identity of the initial group, resulting in very violent persecution of that group the closer they are in philosophy or ideology. Therefore, as the well known and well documented rifts in Sunni-Shia relations have fomented violent conflict, cohesion between two schools of Shia Islam – with one, as Hiltermann posits, “closer in nature to Sunnism” – is far more unlikely.

However, Iran’s desire to be a regional hegemon is well known and a contributing factor to its pursuit of nuclear technology. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Iran would offer to mediate the conflict, suggesting that it could be a “beacon of peacebuilding,” even though there is zero chance of the Saudis accepting the offer.  So in the end, Iran looks magnanimous and doesn’t even have to do anything.

“‘I think the Iranians are laughing. They want to [anger] the Saudis, no question,’ says Mr. Hiltermann, noting that Saudi Arabia [and Yemen] 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.’”

So it seems that Iran is making a sorry attempt to imitate Obama-esque approaches to international issues, by using diplomacy to play the role of “peacebuilder.”  However, somebody should point out Iran’s hypocrisy here: it can’t act like it’s an expert at conflict negotiation when it can’t even form an agreement on the P5+1 nuclear proposal, much less acknowledge its gross human rights violations.

Posted By Bardia Mehrabian

    3 Responses to “A Proxy War in Yemen?”

  1. Pirouz says:


    Bardia, are you unaware of the instrumental role Iran played in arranging a ceasefire between the Iraqi Army and Mahdi Army in March 2008? It was a milestone for the Iraqi people.

    Sorry attempt at peacemaking? As opposed to the type of “peacemaking” that includes invading a country on the other side of the globe, causing over a hundred thousand lives lost, and millions of Iraqis cast out as impoverished refugees? That kind of peacemaking? Or do you mean drone attacks that cause hundreds of civilians killed (many on Obama’s watch) in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or maybe you mean the diplomatic cover being extended (on Obama’s watch) for war crimes and human rights violations committed by the Israelis during Operation Cast Lead, where over a thousand civilians were killed, hundreds of them children, 400,000 left without water, 4,000 homes destroyed or damaged, and tens of thousands left homeless. Is that the kind of commitment to human rights you mean?

    Well, yes. It must be admitted, Bardia. Iran is not in the same league you’re referring to.

  2. Jason says:

    Given the necessity of cooperating with local groups of influence in the region, very little of the information coming from the conflicts can be taken as factual.

    Guerillas do not wear uniforms, especially not when fighting a more powerful foe. It provides a target, makes them stand out from the populace. As soon as they are separated from their weapons by inches, before or after death, they are a civilian. Attack from crowds, public image is the real target.

    Does this excuse Israel? No, it simply points out that it’s pretty easy to make the other guy look awful if you don’t mind being underhanded.

    When will it stop? Perhaps five to ten years after what makes them both want Jerusalem ceases to be. They’ll need some time to blame each other for what their tug-of-war broke.

  3. Crispin Waugh says:

    Iran? Saudi? The same bunch of cowards attacking soft targets. Iran attempts to eradicate its Baluchi (Sunni) population, while the Saudi’s attack the Zaidi’s in Yemen. The only difference is at least the Saudi’s don’t mouth off “Margbar Isra’il!” nor pretend that they have any plan to come to the aid of the Palestinians, unlike your typical Iranian “Paper Tiger”. Everybody just conveniently ignores the suffering of the Palestinians, and the Israelis. time after time, get away with murder and oppression, while the world turns a blind eye. After all, they’re no soft target are they? But never mind, at least we still have “MARGBAR ISRA’IL!”

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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