Foxing the public over Yemen and Iran

When it comes to reporting the conflict in Yemen, Fox News is exceptionally bad. Fox has been fooling its viewers for years but now, with Donald Trump installed in the White House, the problem is becoming a more serious. Trump is a devotee of Fox News: it tells him what he wants to hear — about Iranian influence in Yemen, among other things — and he seems to trust it more than he trusts America’s intelligence agencies.

To make matters worse, though, Trump appears to be watching Fox News without giving it his full attention, presumably because he also has his Twitter feed and presidential business to attend to. As we saw from his reference to an “incident” in Sweden last week — an imaginary event which he claimed to have heard about on Fox News — he has a tendency to pick up garbled versions of what Fox actually broadcasts.

There was a similar Fox-inspired “incident” earlier this month involving Iran or, to be more accurate, not involving Iran. On 2 February, White House spokesman Sean Spicer wrongly asserted that Iran had attacked an American warship. Spicer told reporters “Iran’s additional hostile action that it took against our Navy vessel” (along with a recent Iranian missile test) was one of the reasons why the US was putting Iran “on notice”.

The “American” warship in question was actually Saudi. It had been attacked in the Red Sea at the end of January by Houthi fighters from Yemen who — as Fox constantly reminds its viewers — are “Iranian-backed”. The mistaken idea that the ship was American appears to have come from a Fox News report claiming the attack might have been “meant for an American warship”.

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There was no credible evidence to support this claim but Fox was happy to report it on the basis of quotes from anonymous Pentagon officials even though the Houthis had been claiming all along that the ship was Saudi and identified it — correctly — as a frigate named al-Madinah which had been taking part in a naval blockade along the Houthi-controlled portion of Yemen’s coastline. Nevertheless, suggesting that the intended target was American helped to raise fears about Iran and allowed Fox’s presenter to tell viewers it “could have ominous implications for the US military”.

Fox is always ready to sound alarm bells about Iran on the slenderest of pretexts. Last October, for instance, it got excited about the supposed threat to the US Navy posed by a single 48-year-old Iranian frigate and its supply ship which sailed harmlessly past Yemen to southern Africa, as Iran had said it would do.

While Obama was president propaganda of this kind didn’t have much influence on American policy but it now has a receptive audience in the White House. The danger is that if Trump becomes mired in domestic political conflicts, as seems very likely, he may view confrontation with Iran as a way of rallying Americans around him.

Fox, of course, isn’t the only source of the scaremongering but it is one of the more extreme examples. In large sections of the media Iran’s deep involvement in Yemen is taken for granted: it is assumed to be so obvious that there is no need to consider or even provide any evidence. This is reminiscent of the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq when it became almost heretical to question whether Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destruction.

This isn’t to suggest that Iran has no role in Yemen at all but it’s important not to exaggerate. The Houthis certainly have some religious affinity with Iran and nobody — least of all, the Iranians — would deny that Iran has given them encouragement. But while describing the Houthis as “Iranian-backed” is factually correct it’s liable to be be misleading unless qualified with further explanation. And while it suits Saudi Arabia’s purposes to characterise the Yemen conflict as a proxy war with Iran, local factors inside Yemen are actually far more relevant.

There is a very noticeable contrast between the sort of Yemen coverage provided by Fox News and discussions among people who follow Yemen closely for professional or academic reasons and have no particular axe to grind. I have attended plenty of discussions of the latter kind since the conflict began and the Iranian angle is rarely given much significance. On one occasion it was 40 minutes before anyone even uttered the word “Iran”.

One possible explanation for this is that the country with the longest, most extensive and most negative history of interference in Yemeni affairs is not Iran but Saudi Arabia. Its meddling over the years far outstrips anything done by Iran.

As for what Iran is actually doing to support the Houthis, available evidence suggests it’s not very much — though this may be due more to the practical difficulties involved than a lack of inclination. A key question here is whether, or to what extent, Iran might be arming the Houthis (and supporters of ex-President Saleh who are allied with them).

A recent UN report by a panel of experts looked at this in detail and concluded that if Iran is providing weapons it is unlikely to be doing so on a large scale. The report said:

One factor here is that the Houthi-Saleh forces may not have had much need (so far) to import weapons from abroad because they already have access to a large part of Yemen’s national stockpile. The report noted:

On the question of external supplies, the report considered various ways arms might be smuggled into Yemen from Iran. It discounted the possibility of delivery by air (since the Saudi coalition controls the skies) and identified three possible maritime supply routes. However, these are fraught with difficulties and are probably only suitable for small-scale arms trafficking, as the report explained:

1. Coastal dhows to Houthi-Saleh-controlled ports on the west coast of Yemen

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Possible overland smuggling routes from Oman and Yemen’s southern coast. Map from UN report.

2. Coastal dhows to Omani transit ports

3. Coastal dhows to south-eastern ports or beaches in Yemen

Whether weapons are smuggled across the border from Oman or landed on Yemen’s southern coast, the hazards of transporting them overland to the Houthis through hostile territory are considerable. The UN report commented:

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Weapons seizures in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea during 2015 and 2016. Map from UN report.

Seizures at sea: a question of destination

During 2015 and 2016 there were only four confirmed seizures of weapons in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. All four vessels had sailed from Iran but there’s no real evidence that Yemen was their destination. The UN report suggests they are more likely to have been heading for Somalia:

24 September 2015: Fishing vessel Nasir intercepted by Australian frigate HMAS Melbourne.

27 February 2016: Fishing vessel Samer intercepted by Australian frigate HMAS Darwin.

20 March 2016: Unknown fishing vessel intercepted by French destroyer FS Provence.

28 March 2016: Fishing vessel Adris intercepted by American patrol ship USS Sirocco.

The interception by USS Sirocco was announced in a press release by the American Fifth Fleet and reported in the media but despite two requests from the UN experts, the US has still not disclosed the location of the seizure or provided evidence to support its claim that the shipment “was likely bound for Houthi insurgents in Yemen”.

This is not the only instance where countries engaged in the struggle against arms smuggling have been less than forthcoming with information for the UN panel. Regarding seizures on the overland routes, for example, the report notes:

Nor have the Saudis been eager to elaborate on reports of a possible fifth seizure of weapons at sea in 2016:

It does seem a bit odd that governments which readily accuse Iran of arming the Houthis are not more enthusiastic about providing credible evidence. But perhaps they assume the public is already persuaded and needs no more convincing — and they could be right about that.

Originally published at al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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