By Daniel R. DePetris
Ambassador Nikki Haley pulled no punches at her Dec. 14 media conference in a U.S. Air Force hangar at Anacostia-Bolling. Taking what she called the “extraordinary step” of displaying missile parts that had been declassified for the event, she told reporters that it was Tehran that had supplied the equipment used by Houthi militants trying to attack the civilian airport in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. “The evidence is undeniable,” she said. “The weapons might as well have had “Made in Iran” stickers all over it.”
Haley, Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, had a clear objective in her speech: to bolster international support for Washington’s efforts to hold Tehran accountable for what she called its worsening behavior. “The fight against Iranian aggression is the world’s fight,” she said. “International peace and security depends on us working together.”
The United States, Western Europe, the Gulf Arab states, and the U.N. Security Council have long been concerned about Tehran’s arms smuggling and its violations of U.N. resolutions. U.N. sanctions monitors have documented several shipments of small arms, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition destined for the Houthis that likely originated in Iran. The fact that Houthi militants are increasing the range of their missile launches and are beginning to target Riyadh lends credence to Washington’s suspicions of Iranian technology being exploited against Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration, however, would be deluding itself if it believes Iran is the sole cause of Yemen’s troubles.
The unfortunate reality of the situation is that millions of Yemenis are the primary victims of a cruel and unforgiving contest for power and influence between far more powerful nations. And regrettably, the United States is a big part of the problem.
While it may be convenient to simply write off Yemen’s civil war as yet one more sectarian skirmish in an Arab world infected by polarization and historical grievance, the fighting in the region’s poorest country goes beyond that simplistic paradigm. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two biggest powers in the Middle East and the countries with the largest war-chests, interpret the region’s politics as a zero-sum game where compromise is neither possible nor advisable.
For Saudi Arabia, any gain for Iran is seen as a loss for Riyadh’s geopolitical power and regional leverage. The most recent example was the Saudi royal family’s attempt to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down over his unwillingness to more forcefully confront Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed group that is part of Hariri’s ruling coalition. According to a Reuters report, Saudi King Salman summoned Hariri to Riyadh, where Hariri was presented with a resignation speech that he read on television on Nov. 4. While the pressure on Hariri to leave office failed after he returned to Beirut to continue in government, the ordeal demonstrated the extent to which the Saudis will attempt to curtail their arch-rival’s geopolitical influence.
For Riyadh, both the Houthis and Hezbollah are symbols of Iran’s malignant intentions in the region. The Saudi Press Agency and official statements from senior Saudi officials label the Yemeni movement as an “Iranian armed militia group.” In comments last November, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir claimed that the Houthis would not have been able to continue their operations without Tehran’s military support. Overall, Riyadh has made it clear that its air campaign in Yemen is as much about preventing further Iranian entrenchment on the Arabian Peninsula as it is about restoring Yemen’s internationally-recognized government - if not more so.
The United States may not be an active combatant in Yemen’s war, but it is not a bystander either. The State Department, both under the Obama and Trump administrations have recommended the approval of sales worth billions of dollars in military equipment and training programs since the Saudi air operation began in March 2015; it is hard to imagine that none of it has been used in the Yemen campaign. Despite considerable opposition from the U.S. Senate to selling additional bombs to the Royal Saudi Air Force, the Trump administration was able to pass a $500 million package of laser-guided munitions in June. This, on top of an additional $7 billion in munitions sales that sources have told Reuters may be in the pipeline. Even more important than arms exports, however, is the mid-air refueling assistance the U.S. Air Force provides to Saudi aircraft. It is highly unlikely Saudi planes would be able to maintain the current pace of operations without this instrumental enabler.
Yet at the same time the U.S. continues to provide military and logistical aid to one side of the conflict, Washington continues to rightly insist that intra-Yemeni peace talks are the only way of ending the war and that all combatants must cooperate with the U.N. special envoy. U.S. officials have failed to explain how taking sides while supporting the U.N.-facilitated peace process are not contradictory objectives. Nor has the White House sufficiently explained how U.S. national security interests are promoted by playing a part in an intense geopolitical proxy war whose continuation has helped al Qaeda grow its ranks and the Islamic State double in size.
The administration perhaps has not given an explanation because there is no good one to give. Indeed, Washington’s policy in Yemen in regard to the civil war is ineffective at best and a contributor to the conflict at worst. If the United States is genuinely serious about promoting a peace process, it would change its policy by suspending all defense sales to the Saudi-led coalition that could be used in an offensive capacity in Yemen.
Washington should also work within the Security Council to impose economic sanctions and travel bans on all individuals, regardless of provenance, deemed responsible for human rights abuses and obstructing the diplomatic process and intensify its focus on international extremist groups that threaten Americans at home and abroad. Washington must also devote more attention to conflict-ending negotiations than it has in the past.
Unfortunately, there have been no suggestions from the Trump administration that it will stop a policy not only fueling an increasingly dangerous regional proxy war, but one the U.S. Congress has not had the opportunity to debate and authorize as required under the Constitution.
Washington must recognize its mistakes before further damage is done, because the longer the war goes on the more misery will be thrust upon the Yemeni people - and the more damage there will be to America’s reputation.