November 24, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 562

Saudi-Iranian Tension Increases Following Clashes Between Houthi Rebels, Saudi Military

November 24, 2009 | By Y. Admon and R. Green*
Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 562

The current clashes between the Saudi security forces and the Houthi rebels who have infiltrated Saudi Arabia from Yemen have intensified the steadily escalating conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is part of the cold war in the Middle East between the pro-Saudi camp and the pro-Iranian camp.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen accuse Iran of encouraging, training, funding, and arming the Houthi rebels. Iran's goals, they claim, are to increase its regional influence and to undermine their stability and security, and perhaps also to gain a safe sea route to Sudan and northward. Articles in Saudi and Yemeni dailies called the Houthis "Iranian agents," and argued that they, like Hizbullah, are selling their blood and their land in order to further Iran's interests. The dailies claimed that Iran is stirring up conflicts in Sunni countries as part of its efforts to export its revolution, and called on these countries to retaliate by encouraging Sunni insurgency in Iran.

Since the outbreak of the clashes, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed broad support from Arab countries, including even countries belonging to the pro-Iranian camp, which could indicate the beginning of a change in their orientation. For example, Syria condemned the "infringement on the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia" and supported "its legitimate right to defend its sovereignty and its territory." [1] Solidarity with Saudi Arabia was also expressed at a conference of the Gulf Cooperation Council, held in Qatar. [2]

The Saudi-Iranian tension also intensified lately on the religious level, in the wake of some recent statements by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad relating to the upcoming Hajj celebrations in Saudi Arabia. These were perceived by the Saudis as inciting against Saudi Arabia and threatening it, and as having the potential to spark political riots similar to the July 1987 clashes between Iranian pilgrims and the Saudi security forces. Voices in Saudi Arabia protested that Iran was trying to exploit the religious festival for political purposes and even to sabotage it in order to tarnish Saudi Arabia's reputation and undermine its standing as the Custodian of the Two Holy Places.

Iran, for its part, denied any involvement in the Houthi insurgency, saying that it is only working to promote stability in the region. At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned Yemen's neighbors not to interfere in the events there, explaining that anyone who poured oil on the fire would eventually be harmed by it as well. He added that he was about to visit Riyadh in order to find ways to cooperate and coordinate with the Saudi officials, so as to create a better atmosphere in preparation for the Hajj. [3]

Following are excerpts from recent Saudi reactions to the tension between the two countries, and from Iranian responses to the accusations against it:

Editorials in Saudi Dailies: Iran Is Trying to Drag Saudi Arabia into Confrontation

In referring to the clashes between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi military, Saudi officials have so far refrained from blaming anyone but the Houthis themselves for the situation, but have stressed that firm measures would be taken against anyone trying to harm the Saudi state. [4] However, with the outbreak of the clashes, Saudi government newspapers accused Iran openly and explicitly of using the Houthi rebels to undermine the stability and security of Saudi Arabia. [5]

For example, an editorial in the daily Al-Watan called the Houthis "Iranian agents," and stated: "The Houthi rebel gangs in Sa'da, Yemen must understand that playing with fire on the Saudi border comes at a very high cost - a cost too steep for the little [Houthi] agents [who are serving the aims of] Iran's sectarian expansion plan... just so that Iran can negotiate with the West, obtain a better deal on the issue of its nuclear fuel, and score political points by using the ignorant Houthis as pawns.

"Our courageous forces will purge our land [of the Houthi infiltrators], and the Houthis know that. Their attacks in the border region are only a stunt for the television and media aimed at turning their uprising into a regional problem that could drive Iran and Saudi Arabia into a confrontation - something that Saudi Arabia would rather avoid, as it prefers to maintain neighborly relations [with Iran]. [Saudi Arabia] does not think that the Houthi problem is a regional one but [only] an internal Yemeni one.

"Saudi Arabia has been patient. It has stayed away from this conflict, which Iranian fingers ignited, and it kept disregarding the Houthi attempts to widen [the scope of] the conflict... [Various indications, such as] the Houthis' sympathy for Iran's ideology, Iran's protection of them, and the Iranian weapons that have been discovered on land and in the sea [and which were meant for the Houthis], all attest to a fact that is already known, [namely] that the Houthis are agents of the extremist faction in Iran... Today more than ever, the Houthis are called upon to correct the error [of their ways], to renounce their connection with foreign forces, and to stop serving as a tool for igniting internal or regional wars..." [6]

The Houthis - A New Hizbullah in Yemen

Many writers contended that Iran is trying to establish a new Hizbullah on the Saudi-Yemeni border similar to the Lebanese Hizbullah. [7] In a column titled "The Houthis Are the Yemeni Hizbullah," Saudi columnist Muhammad bin 'Abd Al-Latif Aal Al-Sheikh wrote in the daily Al-Jazirah: "'Abd Al-Malik Al-Houthi, [the Houthi leader] in Yemen, is [the equivalent of] Lebanon's Hassan Nasrallah. The goings-on in northern Yemen and in southern [Saudi Arabia] serve Iran's interests and aspirations in the region. Just as Nasrallah has sold out Lebanon's stability, security and future for Iran's sake, under the pretext of fighting the enemies of the ummah, the Houthis too have sold their country and the blood of their tribe, [betraying] them for the sake of Iran's supreme interest while spouting similar slogans.

"The situation in northern Yemen and in the south of our country, and the situation in Lebanon, are identical [reflections] of Iran's aspirations [and its method of] exploiting the sectarian dimension to further the next Persian agenda... The Iranians infiltrated Lebanon while nobody was looking and set up the Hizbullah militia, meant to eventually become a powerful Iranian tool, first in Lebanon and later in the [entire] region. Hizbullah has fulfilled this Iranian task well, and through it Iran has become an influential factor in the region's power-balances, so that any regional agreement that Iran opposes encounters obstacles and requires negotiations [with Iran]. This means that [no agreement] can be achieved without considering Iran's interests.

"The Houthis serve the very same purpose, though, as an Iranian tool, they are still in the initial stages of formation. If they are met with concessions and their movement is not taken with the seriousness it deserves, an Iranian arm like Hizbullah could emerge in Yemen and on our southern border..." [8]

Saudi Columnists: What If We Supported the Sunnis in Iran?

Another indication of the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran was the absence of any Saudi condemnation of the October 18, 2009 bombings perpetrated by Jundallah in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province. Articles published in the Saudi government press after the bombings did not condemn the attacks but only expressed solidarity with Iran's persecuted Sunnis. Some of them even threatened that Saudi Arabia might start supporting the Sunnis in Iran, just as Iran supports the Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia.

In an article in the Saudi edition of the daily Al-Hayat, Saudi columnist 'Abdallah Nasser Al-'Utaibi called on the Arab states to support the Sunni minority in Iran: "[The Sunnis] in the recent years never had any idea of manufacturing a 50-year Sunni revolution, equivalent to the Iranians' idea of exporting their revolution. This may be because the Sunni Arab states feel no sectarian hostility towards anyone, and because the Sunni [religious] school is not founded upon revolutionary concepts, like some other Muslim schools. Despite this, it would be well if some of the prominent Arab countries strove to support the Sunni movements in Iran, such as the Ahwazi movement in the west [of Iran] and the Baluchi movement in the east. This, so that our rebellious neighbor remain preoccupied with its own affairs instead of trying to export its revolution to [other] nations that have enough problems of their own. The latest step taken by the Jundallah movement in eastern Iran implies that the Arabs have been remiss in fulfilling their duty [of supporting the Sunnis in Iran]. The [Baluchistan] bombing should prompt the Arabs to reassess their way of handling the Iranian expansion..." [9]

Saudi columnist Khalaf Al-Harbi wrote in a similar vein in an article titled "What If the Countries Harmed by Iran's Intervention... Did The Same in Iran?" published in the daily 'Okaz: "Think what Iran would have said if the Arab countries with a Sunni majority had supported the Baluchi organization Jundallah in retaliation for [Iran's] support of Hizbullah, which is [acting] openly in Lebanon and clandestinely in most [other] Arab countries. What if the countries that have been harmed by Iran's intervention - [the countries] in which it has provided rebels with weapons, funds and military advisors - did the same in Iran? Couldn't this be regarded as a kind of self-defense [on the part of these countries]?

"Does Iran think it [can] continue pelting its neighbors with the stones of sectarian [strife], while they look on and refrain from pelting its glass house with similar [stones]? Iran knows better than anyone else that Jundallah is not an insignificant organization, as evidenced by the fact that it has negotiated with it more than once. Moreover, the [Iranian] political regime is now experiencing a historic rift. Hence, [Iran] stands to be the greatest loser if its foreign policy, which is based on the fanning of sectarian strife in the Arab world, were to continue." [10]

Concerns about Iranian Riots During the Hajj; Saudi Arabia: Iran Is Trying to Politicize the Pilgrimage Season

The tension between the two countries also intensified following warnings that were conveyed to Saudi Arabia on the eve of the Hajj festival by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On October 26, 2009, Khamenei criticized the Saudis' "insulting behavior" towards the Shi'ite pilgrims, which "sabotaged [Muslim] unity and served the goals and desires of America and of the foreign espionage apparatuses." He added that "the Saudi government must do its duty by fighting such [phenomena]." [11] Khamenei warned that "the pilgrims coming to Mecca cannot remain indifferent to what is happening in the Muslim world, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and parts of Pakistan..." He called on the Iranian pilgrims to perform the ritual of baraa in Saudi Arabia, [12] saying that "the participation in this ritual is a great [act] of da'wa... through which [a pilgrim] performs the pilgrimage in the fullest way and in all its dimensions." [13] Ahmadinejad likewise called to perform the baraa ceremony, saying that "it is necessary to maximize the potential of this ritual and use it as a special opportunity." [14]

Khamenei's and Ahmadinejad's statements were perceived by the Saudis as an attempt to politicize the Hajj and to destabilize Saudi Arabia in order to divert the world's attention from what is happening inside Iran. A harsh editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Watan stated: "Does your eminence [Khamenei] want to relive the experience of Iranian demonstrations like those that curdled the atmosphere of the Hajj during the 80s?... Clearly, the Saudi state - to whom Allah has entrusted the task of ensuring the Muslims' safety during [their pilgrimage] - will not let anyone, no matter how mighty he regards himself to be, keep other Muslims [from performing the ritual in peace], regardless of what they may say in Tehran. [We beseech] Allah to help our Iranian brothers resolve their [internal] conflicts, but in Mecca and Medina, the last word regarding the Hajj and the safety [of the pilgrims] belongs to the [Saudi] officials- from the lowliest clerk to the most high-ranking official in our dear and honest country." [15]

Saudi Columnist: Is Iran Planning Bombings in Saudi Arabia?

In an editorial the daily 'Okaz, columnist 'Abdallah bin Bajjad Al-'Utaibi warned against Iranian attempts to stage terror attacks in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj. He wrote: "First, we must understand [Iran's] destructive and aggressive policy. Second, we must react to its aggression with all firmness and strength. Third, we must employ against it the same tactics and methods [it uses against us]..."

Al-'Utaibi then warned against Iranian attempts to generate strife and stage bombings in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj: "Are the statements of Iran's leaders aimed at stirring up unrest during the pilgrimage season in Saudi Arabia? Is [Iran] planning to organize mass political protests or bombings during the Hajj, as it has done in the past...? Worse, is it planning to employ elements it considers loyal [to its causes], in the peripheral regions of Saudi Arabia, concurrently with this new attack? Is it planning bombings or terror attacks by Al-Qaeda Yemen... who, as we know, has close ties with Iran? It is quite likely that Iran is planning [to realize] one of these [scenarios]. Anyone who reads about the history of the Islamic Republic or follows its moves knows that such has been its character since the revolution and to this very day." [16]

Iran Warns Saudi Arabia

Iranian officials rejected the Saudi accusations, and made threatening statements. Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said, "The fact that the Saudis have dared to invade a Muslim country [i.e. Yemen], and to massacre the Muslim Yemeni people, should cause all Muslims to feel [outrage]." [17] Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said about the fighting in Yemen: "We firmly warn the countries in the region and [our] neighbors against interfering in Yemen's internal affairs. Stability in Yemen will contribute to the stability of the region, [whereas] any instability in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will have a [negative] impact on the entire region. We firmly warn that [supplying] financial and military aid to extremist terrorist groups, or oppressing the people by means of military attacks, will have very [undesirable] outcomes." [18] Mottaki added: "If people pour oil on the fire of fitna, they must realize that they too will inevitably be harmed by the resulting flames and smoke." [19] At the same time, Mottaki said that "[Iran's] position on Yemen's territorial integrity and on its national unity, and [Iran's] opposition to extremist terror attacks, are very clear." He advised the Yemenis that rehabilitating the relations between the Yemeni government and the public, including the Shi'ites, would benefit both sides, adding that Iran had already announced its willingness to mediate between them, and denying that his visit to Yemen for this purpose had been canceled. [20] Mottaki stated that contacts were underway with Saudi Arabia to arrange his visit in Riyadh, aimed at finding ways for mutual cooperation and coordination so as to create a better atmosphere in preparation for the Hajj. [21]

At a November 10, 2009 press conference in Istanbul, Ahmadinejad said, "All the disagreements can be resolved through dialogue and mutual understandings... We call on all the sides involved in the clashes in Yemen to exercise restraint. Iran's policy is only to strengthen the unity, brotherhood, and cooperation among all nations. The situation in Yemen is detrimental to the interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen [itself], and the entire region. An end to the killing is mandated by Allah's [commandments], by Islam and by the Iranian culture." [22]

An article in the daily Iran, which is associated with the Ahmadinejad government, claimed that Saudi Arabia has an interest to ignite war in Yemen, and that this country is conspiring with the U.S.'s plots in the region. "Saudi Arabia's meddling in the Yemeni war is obvious to everyone... This war, which has been forced on the Shi'ites in Yemen, is a coordinated conspiracy by America and several Arab governments in the region, particularly Wahhabi ones... as evidenced by the fact that Saudi Arabia has occupied three Yemeni provinces and some 10 Yemeni islands... and is unwilling to withdraw from them, because they are very rich in oil... Creating a big crisis in Yemen... seems to be a Saudi goal." [23]

* R. Green and Y. Admon are research fellows at MEMRI.


[1] SANA (Syria), November 11, 2009.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), November 11, 2009.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), November 11, 2009.

[4] For example, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz said that "Saudi Arabia is strong and can repel and defeat any enemy," while Deputy Defense and Aviation Minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan said that Saudi Arabia would destroy anyone who wished to harm it in any way. He added that the air and artillery strikes against the Houthi militants would continue until they stopped infiltrating Saudi Arabia, and that the king had instructed the Saudi forces "not to invade even an inch of [another country's] territory, [but also] not to let anyone invade even an inch of Saudi soil." Al-Hayat (London), November 9, 2009.

[5] Similar accusations against Iran were made in several other articles and editorials, including a November 8, 2009 editorial in the daily Al-Riyadh, titled "The Houthis - Foolish Tools of War"; a November 6, 2009 editorial in the Al-Jazirah daily, titled "The Houthis Are Digging Their Own Grave," which referred to Iran implicitly by stating that "the enemies of Arabness and Islam" were behind the Houthis; a November 8, 2009 article in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, by chief editor Tariq Alhomayed, who wrote that Iran was using the Houthis in an attempt to form a front against Saudi Arabia; and another November 8 article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, by Al-Arabiya director-general 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, which characterized the Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia as an Iranian act.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 5, 2009.

[7] Yemen president 'Ali 'Abdallah Saleh accused Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels in his country, and said that these rebels had received training similar to that of the Hizbullah operatives in South Lebanon, implying that Hizbullah commanders are present in the Houthi stronghold of Sa'da and are training the fighters there. Al-Zaman (London), October 20, 2009.

[8] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), November 8, 2009. The editor of the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tariq Alhomayed, spoke in a similar vein. He told the Al-Arabiya website that Iran may be trying to form another Hizbullah on the Yemeni-Saudi border, in order to undermine the stability and security of Saudi Arabia, and that if the Houthis succeed in infiltrating Saudi Arabia and forming sleeper cells there, it could pose a grave danger to this country., November 8, 2009.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), October 27, 2009.

[10] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 21, 2009.

[11], October 11, 2009.

[12] A type of ceremony, advocated by the founder of the Islamic Revolution regime, Ayatollah Khomeini, in which the pilgrims express their renunciation of the infidels and the enemies of Islam by shouting political slogans such as "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."

[13], October 26, 2009.

[14], October 26, 2009.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 28, 2009.

[16] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 9, 2009.

[17] ISNA (Iran), November 11, 2009.

[18] Etemad (Iran), November 11, 2009.

[19] Fars (Iran), November 10, 2009.

[20] Etemad (Iran), November 11, 2009.

[21] Fars (Iran), November 10, 2009; Al-Hayat (London), November 11, 2009.

[22] IRNA (Iran), November 10, 2009.

[23] Iran (Iran), November 10, 2009.

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