“The real accusation is that Iran is interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal in his response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who denounced what he called “Saudi military intervention” against the Huthi militants in Yemen. This was something new that many did not dare discuss publicly, not even the United States itself. And when al Faisal speaks, we must listen very carefully.
This was not the first time Saud al Faisal issued a warning. His warnings are usually followed by actions from bigger and greater powers. On the day he made this statement, I remember what Prince Saud al Faisal said in reply to a question from a member of the audience during a speech he delivered on 21 September 2005 at the Baker Institute in Houston: “Iran has seized control of southern Iraq – and what irony – under the protection of US forces.” His remark on that day was within the context of Saudi concerns about Iranian behaviour in the region which the prince had talked about in New York a few days before the Houston lecture.
On that day, Prince Saud al Faisal delivered his lecture on “Saudi oil policy” and in reality it had nothing to do with Iran and Iraq. Edward Djerejian, the director of the Baker Institute, was standing reading the questions out to the prince. From among the many questions the prince chose one about Iraq and turned it into a talk about the Iranian incursion into the south. He spoke at length with his eyes on Djerejian, as if it was a private “off the record” discussion between two professional diplomats. This worried the Baker Institute director, as he thought that the prince had forgotten that he was in front of a public audience. I do not know what went on between the ambassador and the prince, but I said to Djerejian afterwards: “This entire speech and the prince’s trip from New York to Texas were not about discussing oil policy, but rather about the Iranian infiltration of southern Iraq. This was either agreed before the talk or he would have answered the question in that way even if you didn’t bring it up.”
Even though it was an Asharq Al-Awsat correspondent who asked the prince about Iran, Saud al Faisal’s answer suggested that he intended to touch on the subject in any case. This does not take away from the intelligence of the correspondent who asked the question but rather shows us the wisdom of a man replying to the question of a member of the audience after delivering a speech at the Baker Institute in Houston on 21 December 2005. After al Faisal’s distinctive speech, global policies shifted towards hard-line stances on the Iranian regime after which pressure on Iran came from all corners. [This could be sensed] in the words of Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street and in President George W. Bush’s speech in Washington on 6 October 2005, in which he accused Iran’s regime of acting as the ally of terrorist groups.
Will the accusations against Tehran come pouring out this time at the London Conference on Yemen in the same way they did after the prince’s statements in 2005? I believe the wind is blowing in that direction. It might be ridiculous for us to say that Saud al Faisal is the main engine behind adopting this policy towards Iran but we should not underestimate the role of a veteran politician who has managed the Saudi kingdom’s foreign policy for 30 years to get the world to serve its own interests.
“The Huthis themselves are saying that Saudi Arabia is not fighting them. The real accusation is that Iran is interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs and this cannot cover up the accusations of others in this regard.” This was the prince’s response to Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s statements a few weeks back. It was a frank statement at a time when many hesitated to point fingers at Iran.
On 12 December 2009, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies [IISS] held a forum on the stability of Yemen in participation with Al Arabiya television channel, which was organized on the sidelines of the annual Manama Dialogue [forum]. The participants of this forum included Ali Mohammed al Ansi, the director of the Yemeni presidential office and head of the National Security Service; Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa; Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of the State; and the author of these lines in my capacity as Senior Fellow for Middle East and Gulf security at the IISS, the organizer of the Manama Dialogue forum.
The Yemeni official refrained from accusing Iran directly while the US official, Jeffrey Feltman, took a neutral position, as he if were a Swiss official, when he said “the United States does not have any evidence from an independent source of direct Iranian interference in Yemen.” Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa was diplomatic in his response. This forced me to say: it is unacceptable not to talk about foreign interference in Yemen. It is far beyond the capacities of the Huthis as we all know. If you are afraid to call Iran by its name, then let us acknowledge that there is a foreign party stirring events in Yemen and let us say figuratively that this foreign interference is coming from Mars. Therefore, it is clear to everybody that the Martians are interfering in southern Iraq and they are also the ones who established Hezbollah and [it is clear] that Mars is behind the troubled situation at Egypt’s borders through Hamas and that Mars is responsible for the sectarian trouble in Bahrain, and that the Americans are negotiating with Mars about the Martian nuclear file. We can talk about the “Martian crescent” that the Jordanian King talked about some years ago. As soon as the dialogue at the forum continued, the participants at the conference adopted the word Mars as an alternative for Iran. Before [Iranian Foreign Minister] Manuchehr Mottaki began his speech, one official asked me whether I would listen to the speech of the foreign minister of Mars.
The fundamental point is that everyone knew the extent of Iranian intervention in Yemen but no one dared talk about it, including the United States itself. Yet someone close to General Petraeus, the head of the Central Command, told me: “The General admires very much what you said about Mars and shares your view.” I told him why didn’t he say so himself in his lecture at the conference the next day, 14 December 2009.
Prince Saud al Faisal was not present at that conference but at its end, IISS Chief Executive John Chipman said, “When we held the first conference of the Manama Dialogue in 2004, Prince Saud al Faisal delivered a speech in which he said ‘the security of the Gulf depends on the Cooperation Council as an integrated structure, a stable Iraq, a unified Yemen, and Iran as a friendly neighbor.’” Commenting on what the prince had said in 2004, Dr. Chipman said: “This is the policy we need now more than ever before.”
The fundamental point here is that what al Faisal said has been taken into account, even after years, and you will see what he wanted to say when he made direct accusations that superpowers hesitated to make. There is definitely something new in the sensitivity of the balances of power in the region and there is most certainly a change in Saudi policy towards Iran which we might not see today but will have consequences and which Iran must take seriously.