Saudi Arabia's decision to lead a coalition of Arab states in an air campaign against Yemen's al-Houthi movement, known as Ansar Allah, may reduce the group's capability but is unlikely to weaken its resolve. On the contrary, if things go bad, the action could make matters worse for Saudi Arabia in its own backyard and strengthen Iran's position as a regional powerbroker as a result.
Yesterday was not the first time Saudi Arabia took the lead in projecting military power beyond its borders. We saw this in Riyadh's intervention to crush a largely Shiite uprising in Bahrain in March 2011. Earlier, in 2009, the Saudis conducted air and ground operations against al-Houthi positions along their border with Yemen. That said, the overnight airstrikes in Yemen show that Riyadh no longer relies on the United States to fight its wars. It has also demonstrated its regional leadership by marshaling the forces of nine other allied nations — the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan Morocco and Pakistan, though Islamabad is still in the process of deciding what its role is in the largely Arab task force.
After decades of dependence on the United States for its national security needs, Riyadh has in recent years begun to aggressively develop its own indigenous military capabilities. The shift began in earnest after Iraq fell into the Iranian orbit following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and when Washington subsequently began its withdrawal from the Middle East through 2011 onward. In addition to developing its own national capabilities, Riyadh has focused on working with its Gulf Cooperation Council partners to create a regional coalition to combat the rise of Iranian influence.
So far the Saudis have used only direct military action against pro-Iranian forces within the confines of the Arabian Peninsula, in this case the al-Houthis, the group's tribal allies and the camp of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Elsewhere in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has acted against pro-Iranian forces by proxy. In Yemen, however, where Riyadh can act in a more direct fashion, Iran's influence is actually quite limited, despite its reaching ambitions. Geographic and financial constraints prevent Iran from providing greater support to the al-Houthis. Furthermore, the group is also classifiable as a Zaidi religious movement that is, from a sectarian point of view, different from the Shiite Islam that the Iranians and most other Arab Shiites follow.
While taking whatever assistance they can get, the al-Houthis see themselves as a Yemeni and an Arab force and do not want to align with Tehran, as have Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiites and the Syrian government. The Iranians are also aware that the Saudis have more money, more combat power, better logistics and better proximity to act in Yemen. For this reason, Iran does not expect to add Yemen to its sphere of influence anytime soon.
That said, when Riyadh eased Saleh out of power in the wake of the Arab Spring, the process did not stabilize the situation south of the Saudi border. Rather, it created more chaos in Yemen than before. The failure to create a post-Saleh order facilitated the rise of Ansar Allah as the single largest group in the country, which was a boon from Iran's perspective because it added to the growing regional chaos that its Saudi rivals had to face. It is unclear whether Tehran wanted the Saudis to intervene in Yemen, but now that they are, it works to Iran's advantage if things go badly.
The al-Houthi movement cannot be dealt with entirely militarily: It has too much influence in the country. But the Saudis and their partners hope to minimize their use of force, ideally avoiding a ground offensive, to get the al-Houthi movement to the bargaining table. Their goal is to get those forces, especially those loyal to Saleh, to leave the al-Houthis and for the movement to temper its goal of becoming kingmakers in Yemen's new political system.
It is unlikely that any of these groups will simply give up immediately. The Saudis could increase the pressure but are reluctant to do so because it would risk getting Riyadh sucked into a larger conflict in Yemen, which would fragment the country even more. In addition, jihadists from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and even the Islamic State will exploit the sectarian battleground and gain greater space, making matters worse for Riyadh.
Of course, the Saudi move to lead a multinational military force against the al-Houthis is a cause of concern for Iran. However, Tehran realizes that the fact that Riyadh had to bring together a major coalition to fight a group that is only on the outskirts of Iranian influence is a victory in itself. After all, Saudi Arabia by its own accord is reacting to Iranian interference in the Arab world and not the other way around.
Ultimately, while Iran is unlikely to establish a serious foothold in Yemen, the fact that Saudi Arabia could still lose control of the country or risk inciting more tensions is still a net benefit.