By Sam Wilkin
DUBAI (Reuters) – Cut off from Yemen and its allies there by a Saudi-led military campaign, Iran has intensified a media counter-offensive against Riyadh, accusing its regional rival of inflicting catastrophic suffering while presenting itself as a blameless peacemaker.
Iranian state media have given blanket coverage in Arabic, Farsi and English to the three-month-old war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Sunni Arab allies have been bombing the Iranian-allied Houthi faction for over three months.
The violence has killed more than 2,800 people, displaced one million and left more than 21 million people or 80 percent of the population in need of some form of humanitarian aid and or protection, the United Nations says.
In its latest broadside, the hardline Fars news agency on Wednesday released a video clip showing the face of Saudi King Salman morphing into that of Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator loathed in Tehran as its enemy in a 1980-88 war, interspersed with scenes of crying Yemeni children.
Another tactic was a state-sponsored cartoon contest about the Yemen war — even as an Iranian court sentenced an activist to more than 12 years in jail on charges including drawing cartoons of Iranian lawmakers.
One entry showed a Saudi fighter jet delivering bloodied Yemenis into the hands of jihadists, while the winner depicted the Islamic profession of faith being erased from the Saudi flag as bombs rained down.
“Iran’s political win comes from the ability to present itself as a potential peacemaker, rather than the ability actually to secure a deal on the ground,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said.
“The Iranians don’t have much to lose and a lot to gain from the ongoing conflict and the sense that the Saudis and their allies are sinking into a deeper quagmire.”
Saudi Arabia and its partners aim to restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from his exile in the Saudi capital Riyadh, saying they are defending Yemeni sovereignty against the sudden rise to power of the Houthi militia over the past nine months.
Riyadh has found it hard going: the kingdom has held back from committing ground troops and has yet to find a powerful enough Yemeni ally to beat back the determined Houthis on land.
But the coalition does appear to have shut down the possibility of Iran sending material help to the Houthis: It has taken control of Yemen’s air space and waters and prevented Iranian attempts to ship and fly in aid.
Now, making a virtue of necessity, Iran is hitting back on the airwaves.
“The Iranian strategy has changed partly because of a change of circumstances… (The embargo) prevents them from supporting the Saleh-Houthi alliance in an overt way,” Ayham Kamel, Middle East director at the Eurasia Group consultancy, said.
The Houthis are allied with army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down as part of a Gulf-backed political transition following a 2011 uprising.
Iran has long quietly cultivated political ties with the Houthis and diplomats suspect this expanded into paramilitary training and supplies in recent years. Iran denies providing material support to the group.
Tehran has sought to turn the embargo to its advantage, sending a series of aid shipments that were forcefully turned away by the coalition — a move Tehran vigorously publicized.
In April, for example, coalition jets bombed the runway of Yemen’s main airport to prevent an Iranian cargo plane from landing, after the pilots ignored orders to turn around.
The following month, an Iranian cargo ship set sail for a Houthi-controled port under military escort, nearly provoking a showdown with coalition forces planning to inspect the ship.
The vessel ultimately did not test the blockade, offloading its cargo in Djibouti for delivery by the United Nations before returning to Iran.
Iranian diplomats have cast Tehran as a peacemaker, putting forward peace plans and decrying “external meddling” from the United Nations to the Islamic Organization Conference.
“They are trying to turn on its head the narrative that Iran is always the one destabilizing the region,” Barnes-Dacey said.
For their part, the Saudis have tried to portray their Yemen campaign as lawful, as being undertaken in Yemen’s own interests, and as a turning point in what Riyadh sees as unchecked Iranian expansionism in Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia points to the widespread international recognition of Hadi’s presidency and a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding the Houthis withdraw from occupied areas, surrender weapons and restore the exiled government.
(Editing by William Maclean/Mark Heinrich)