Iran’s protestors are showing immense courage. That is a given. But the reasons why are worth spelling out.
Not only do they have the bravery to demonstrate against a theocratic dictatorship which has veiled women against their will for over forty years; they also protest in the full knowledge that the regime has already killed many thousands of activists in Iran and across the Middle East.
With a seeming spirit of negotiation sweeping the Middle East, it’s easy enough to make rash predictions. Saudi Arabia taking to Iran and the Assad regime in Syria – Egypt and Turkey talking to each other. Many commentators, notably in the United States, are already treating this as a fundamental change to the old ways of doing things, and in doing so are taking leave of things we know to be true.
Mountainous and dry, with a tendency to anarchy in the ample spaces between its cities, Yemen has long been hospitable to insurgency. Yet in ancient times it was home to the Sabaeans and had claims to be the biblical land of the Queen of Sheba. Its fertility and beauty were such that the Romans called it Arabia Felix, ‘happy Arabia’. The people there are mostly Arabs and like much of the rest of Arabia, became subject to the distant domain of the Ottoman sultan. The fate of the peninsula was influenced significantly by Britain, which in 1937 took the port city of Aden as the centre of its colony (on independence in 1967, it became South Yemen). Britain exercised significant influence over who ruled Muscat and Oman; assisted succession to the monarchy and imamate of North Yemen; and together with the US confirmed the al Saud family as hereditary rulers of what became Saudi Arabia. Now combined, the former North and South Yemen are together Sunni by bare majority, but the Zaidi Shia remain a large, mainly northern minority.
There’s no need to be surprised by reports that envoys from Saudi Arabia and Iran have been negotiating in secret in Baghdad. Nor by the fact that the negotiations have been vigorously denied. Nor that the Saudi crown prince now has uncommonly constructive things to say (and on the record) about his country’s possible future relationship with Iran.
Yemen’s civil war is commonly described – not without reason – as having given rise to this century’s worst humanitarian disaster. United Nations officials and national leaders condemn the killing it has seen, the displacement it has caused, and the hunger and disease its continuation has allowed to spread. Whenever they are asked, foreign politicians without a stake in events intone that a ‘political solution’ is necessary and that peace must be achieved through dialogue.
As you will likely have gleaned from other sources, Joe Biden is now the president of the United States. He has begun his time in office, as presidents are wont to do, by making a show of being busy and in charge. Biden spent the first few hours at his desk undoing all the work of his predecessor that could be undone by executive order.