Iran's President Rouhani Calls Airstrikes in Yemen A "Mistake," As Death Toll Climbs From Saudi-Led, U.S.-Backed Bombing

Iran has ramped up criticism for Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, with President Hassan Rouhani directly attacking “Operation Decisive Storm,” which is led by Saudi Arabia and backed strategically by the United States. In a press conference Thursday, the Iranian president called the campaign a “mistake,” while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added his condemnation of the attacks. Iran is widely believed to support Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels — the targets of the strikes — and these remarks from top Iranian officials come a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Iran over their supposed involvement in the conflict.

Yemen has become increasingly chaotic since the Houthis — a rebel militia adhering to the Zaidism branch of Shia Islam — swept south, forcing President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to relocate his government from Sana’a to Aden, and then to flee the country all together. As the Houthis bore down on Aden, Saudi Arabia rapidly gathered together a coalition of states and embarked on a series of airstrikes against rebel-held positions. The strikes have continued for a fortnight, with U.S support. Having initially indicated purely strategic assistance, this week the U.S. military began air-refuelling operations for the Saudi-led campaign, as well as expediting weapons supplies to the coalition forces.

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The death toll has risen steeply since the airstrikes began, with the Red Cross warning of a “catastrophic” situation in the country as a result of the bombings. The humanitarian organization told AFP Wednesday that schools had been hit, and students killed. The Houthi advance has continued despite the strikes, with the rebels battling fiercely in Aden on Wednesday.

In a speech in Tehran Thursday, President Rouhani appealed for a ceasefire, to allow for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. He said:

To the countries in the region, I say, let’s adopt the spirit of brotherhood, let’s respect each other and other nations. A nation does not give in through bombing… Do not kill innocent children. Let’s think about an end to the war, about ceasefire and humanitarian assistance to the suffering people of Yemen.
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Referring to U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq, Rouhani said, “You will learn, not later but soon, that you are making a mistake in Yemen, too.” Shiite-majority Iran is widely believed to be backing the ascendant Houthis, but Tehran and the rebels have denied that Iran is arming them.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that the U.S. believes Iran is involved in the conflict. Kerry told PBS Newshour Wednesday, “There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran. There are a number of flights every single week that have been flying in.” He said the White House would support any state in the region that felt threatened by Iran, and wouldn’t “stand by” if Iran destabilized the Middle East.

The comments came after Iran dispatched two navy vessels to the Gulf of Aden on Wednesday. Iran claimed that the vessels would protect shipping off the southern coast of Yemen.

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While Rouhani pushed for a ceasefire, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei went further in his condemnation of the attacks. In remarks Thursday, he claimed the airstrikes had killed innocent civilians and amounted to genocide. “The aggression by Saudi Arabia against Yemen and its innocent people was a mistake,” he said, echoing Rouhani’s language. “This is a crime and genocide that can be prosecuted in international courts.” He also warned that Saudi Arabia would not prevail in the conflict.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has previously said that Iran is willing to facilitate peace talks between the various sides involved in the conflict, in the hopes of established a broad-based government in Yemen. Zarif is currently in Pakistan, ostensibly attempting to convince Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not to join the Saudi coalition.

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Given Iran’s presumed involvement and the Saudi-led strikes, many commentators have warned that Yemen is becoming a proxy Sunni-Shiite battleground. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has described its strikes as a necessary action against the Iran-backed rebels. But Ishaan Tharoor warns against such simplistic thinking. In a Washington Post article, he writes, “the political unrest in Yemen is far too complicated to fit into a sectarian binary.” The Houthis aren’t even particularly ideologically close to Iran’s Shiite government, Tharoor points out, and Iran is more of “an opportunistic fringe player” in the conflict.

Tharoor characterizes Yemen’s internecine struggle as a political, not a religious, one. And it’s a battle that is having a devastating impact — all the more since the strikes began. At least 643 have been killed and 2,226 wounded in Yemen since March 19, according to The World Health Organization. 10,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the conflict. Aid began to trickle into the devastated port city of Aden Wednesday, as two ships carrying humanitarian workers and medical aid arrived in the harbor.

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