By Harriet Salem
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned Saudi Arabia and the US on Thursday that they would soon learn they were “making a mistake” by intervening against Houthi rebels in Yemen, amid a deepening war of words over the raging conflict.
On Wednesday night, US Secretary of State John Kerry had cautioned Tehran that America would not “stand by” if it destabilized the region, following the arrival of two Iranian warships in Yemeni waters on Wednesday.In a televised speech, Rouhani then raised the specter of the Iraq invasion and called for a halt in the Saudi-led air campaign against the Shia Houthis to allow humanitarian aid into the country and diplomatic negotiations to be opened.
He said the campaign — backed by nine mainly Sunni Arab Gulf states and supported by US intelligence and logistics — was a “mistake,” citing American involvement in Syria and Iraq. “You learned it was wrong [there]. You will learn, not later but soon, that you are making a mistake in Yemen, too,” he said. “A great nation like Yemen will not submit to bombing. Come, let us all think about ending war. Let us think about a ceasefire.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also spoke out against the airstrikes, calling Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen “a crime, genocide” and warning the kingdom that it will “lose.”
The two Iranian warships arrived just a few miles offshore from some of the fiercest fighting in the southern port city of Aden. But Iran has claimed the naval destroyers are part of an anti-piracy effort to “safeguard naval routes for vessels in the region.”
The Houthi rebels, seen by Saudi Arabia as Iranian-funded proxies, seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September, forcing the country’s incumbent leader President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to Aden in the south. From there he governed the country — at least nominally — until leaving for the Saudi capital Riyadh just over two weeks ago. Since then, the Houthi rebels and allied forces have continued to advance across the country despite the airstrikes against them.
Tehran has denied having any role in the uprising, or conflict, but on Wednesday night, in an interview with PBS, Kerry claimed the US had evidence of its involvement. “There have been — there are, obviously — flights coming from Iran. Every single week there are flights from Iran and we’ve traced it and know this,” he said.
He said that the US would support any country in the region that felt threatened by Iran. “Iran needs to recognize that the US is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries and other countries,” he added.
Kerry’s statement came just hours after Washington announced that it was rushing more weapons, including precision guided missiles, to support its Saudi allies in the battle against the rebels. “Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force. In support of that effort we have expedited weapons deliveries,” US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Riyadh late on Tuesday.
However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that although extent of US involvement in operations is unclear, acts such as providing intelligence to strike targets and refueling planes on a bombing mission may make Washington a party to the conflict under international law. Regardless, the monitoring group is calling on Washington to use its influence to open up channels for aid deliveries and to reduce devastation and casualties.
“Whether or not the US is legally a party to the conflict in Yemen, it should be pressing Saudi Arabia and other allies to take all necessary steps to minimize civilian harm, ensure access to aid groups, and investigate alleged laws-of-war violations,” James Ross, legal and policy director at HRW, told VICE News.
Little humanitarian aid has reached Yemen since the bombing campaign began 15 days ago, but on Thursday, Medecins Sans Frontieres said it had managed to dock a boat carrying 2.5 tons of medical supplies and a team of surgeons in Aden, a southern port city.
Aden, a city with a population of around 800,000 during times of peace, is now said to resemble a ghost town, with civilians hiding as fierce street clashes rage between rebels and so-called “loyalist forces” or “popular committees” aligned with exiled Hadi.
Speaking to Reuters from inside the city, Marie Claire Feghali, spokesperson for the International Committee for the Red Cross in Yemen, warned that a humanitarian catastrophe is looming. “Shops are closed, so people cannot get food, they cannot get water. There are still dead bodies in the street. Hospitals are extremely exhausted,” she said.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who have long had a foothold in Yemen’s vast and sparsely populated east, are making gains amid the chaos. “This is a big opportunity for AQAP, and even the Islamic State, to seize more ground and consolidate and they’re taking it. Extremist Islamic groups are benefiting the most from this war at the moment,” Dr Nabeel Khoury, an expert on the Middle East and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told VICE News.
While the US previously orchestrated a drone and bombing campaign against the militant group from bases in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition’s attentions are now focused on the Houthis to the neglect of AQAP, reportedly allowing fighters from the radical Sunni Islamist group to seize al Mulkalla, the capital of the oil-rich Hadramaut province, and raise the flag above government buildings in Siddah.
“This strategy will not benefit anyone in the long-term, the Saudis included,” said Khoury. “It’s a situation where my enemy’s enemy is still my enemy, al Qaeda will happily shoot at Saudi soldiers.”
According to the World Health Organization, 643 people have now been killed in the conflict and more than 2,000 wounded in fighting. A further 334,000 people have been internally displaced by the conflict.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem – Vice News
By Harriet Salem