Can US President Donald Trump — who has warned his global trading partners not to do business with Iran for the sake of what he tweets in bold caps as “WORLD PEACE” — at least use his leverage over his allies in the Middle East to help stop the Pandora’s Box of a humanitarian catastrophe that they have opened in Yemen? This should not be beyond the realms of possibility if, as US Senator Mike Lee claims, “It stretches the imagination, and it stretches the English language beyond its breaking point, to suggest the US military is not engaged in hostilities in Yemen.”
It seems that the Trump administration’s Middle East policy is confined solely to countering Iran. The Islamic Republic’s allegedly duplicitous role in sponsoring terrorism and sowing regional chaos by exporting its revolution to neighbouring countries is what Trump and his cohorts invoke to justify America’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
However, one cannot gloss over the role of America’s own policies in advancing Tehran’s regional ambitions. For instance, it has been Washington’s tacit support and blessing to the Saudi-UAE Coalition’s brutal military campaign in Yemen that has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis gripping that country today. What’s more, it has helped Iran to expand its spheres of influence there.The Obama administration sought to tread the fine line between criticising the creation of the humanitarian crisis and alienating its allies in the region, but did nothing to stop their intervention nor to ameliorate the problem of rising numbers of civilian casualties. Furthermore, together with France and Britain, it provided the Saudis and the Emiratis with the intelligence, in-flight refuelling facilities and logistical support. Now the Arab allies are more emboldened than ever by Trump’s hare-brained foreign policy, his unilateral reneging on the Iran nuclear deal and his lifting of Obama’s ban on the use of smart bombs.
This evident complicity of the US in the military intervention is proving to be more disastrous and counterproductive in the long run, because intensified offensives from both sides will only add fuel to the fire, further distancing the possibility of reaching a political solution and helping to whet Iran’s appetite for regional ascendance. There is no doubt that Iran is using the humanitarian crisis triggered by the military intervention as a pretext for its support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
If the US is genuinely interested in ending the war in Yemen and preventing Iran from expanding its spheres of influence in the region, it should stop endorsing the ill-fated and destructive intervention of its allies and be an honest broker in support of the current UN envoy’s efforts to resume peace talks. By throwing in its lot with one of the aggressors, Washington is ruining its credibility for a neutral role in negotiations.
When it comes to a negotiated settlement, it is important to keep all foreign interventions at bay, whether it be the direct military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the UAE or Iran’s use of proxies. As long as the US continues to give its logistical and intelligence support to the Coalition’s intervention, nothing can absolve it of complicity in Yemen’s humanitarian disaster.
Despite intensified armed conflict and the unprecedented humanitarian crisis it has triggered, there seems to be no military solution in sight. The avowed goal of the Saudi-led intervention since March 2015 has been to hold the Houthis in check and prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in Yemen, as well as to return President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to power. Now, more than three years down the line, the intervention has not only failed in recapturing much of the areas held by the Houthis — except for some parts of southern Yemen — but also further pushed the country into an intractable humanitarian catastrophe, with reckless bombing and shelling in civilian areas. The fighting has so far killed over 10,000 people, in addition to which 50,000 children have died due to starvation and disease accentuated by the Saudi-UAE blockade of Yemeni ports.
It is estimated that Saudi Arabia spends $6 billion a month on the war in Yemen, far more than what Iran spends in support for the Houthis. Despite the vast sums spent jointly by the Saudis and Emiratis in pursuit of their objective, Iran is getting stronger in Yemen, more so than it was at the beginning of the Coalition campaign.
What’s more, the spectre of Iranian ascendance across the region raised by Saudi Arabia and UAE has been intensified further by Bashar Al-Assad, who has been making steady progress against the opposition in Syria. To this can be added the electoral successes of Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Lebanon earlier this year.
Although Saudi Arabia’s military presence in Yemen is helping Iran to project the Houthi cause as part of what Tehran calls “a larger struggle against Sunni hegemony”, Iran’s interest and influence in Yemen would not go any deeper than blocking Saudi domination in the country. In reality, the incentive for Iran to stay in Yemen is the presence of the Saudi-led military coalition rather than any religious affinity with the Houthis, who do not profess allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader and whose Shia faith more closely resembles Arabian Sunnism than Iranian Shiism.
Given this difference between Iran’s religious affinity with the Houthis and its connection with the Shia in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, projecting the Yemeni group as Iranian proxies is a little overstated. Although the Houthis depend increasingly on Iranian weapons and military expertise, and their armed strategy resembles that of Hezbollah, there is no religious or ideological bonding between them, beyond an alliance of convenience against a common enemy.