on Sunday 21 February, 2021

Iran's win in Yemen a problem for Biden – with no clear solutions

by : Washington Examiner - Joel Gehrke

An oft-neglected conflict in Yemen is settling into a significant strategic victory for Iran, with support for a Shia militant group known as the Houthis handing Tehran the ability to threaten a second major international shipping lane and Saudi Arabia.

Oil and gas, as ever in the modern era, fuels the danger posed by rogue actors in the Middle East. Iran already can target freighters in the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway between the Iranian coast and the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula. A foothold in Yemen, at the southwestern tip of that peninsula, extends the Iranian reach to the region’s other major oil shipping lane — the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the choke point linking the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and the open ocean.

“Iranians clearly are able to operate freely in Houthi-controlled areas,” a Senate Republican aide who was not authorized to speak publicly said. “They could really inflict a lot of pain on the globe, fairly inexpensively.”

President Biden and U.S. allies in the region can ill-afford to concede to Iran such a two-pronged throttle on global energy supplies. And yet, the obvious options for countering the Iranian regime in Yemen come with their own grim downsides.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention against the Houthis has come at a horrifying cost in civilian bloodshed, stoking bipartisan U.S. outrage and spurring Biden to cut off the spigot of U.S. aid for Saudi offensive operations. The available tools for economic pressure would only worsen the civilian suffering while raising the risk that the Houthis would grow even more dependent on Iranian supplies.

“It’s a Catch-22. No matter what you do, it is wrong,” a senior European diplomat said. "If you have three or four more rockets falling on Saudi soil, I don’t know what the State Department is going to do.”

The vulnerability of Saudi Arabian positions is not lost on Special Representative Timothy Lenderking, the career diplomat whom Secretary of State Antony Blinken tapped as point-man for the crisis. His first visit to Riyadh in that role coincided with a drone attack on the city’s airport from Houthi controlled territory — “we’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice,” he said after the trip — followed by a sigh of relief that no one was aboard the aircraft destroyed in the bombardment.

“The Iranians have played a very negative role in Yemen hitherto ... their training, their supplying, and their equipping the Houthis to conduct attacks against civilian targets in the kingdom and elsewhere in the Gulf have been particularly damaging,” Lenderking told reporters this week. “And if the Houthis want to state their goodwill, they’ll push away from Iran. ... They themselves have stated that they want to be seen as independent of Iran.”

Seething Saudis

The Saudis already are smarting from Blinken’s decision to remove the Houthis from the U.S. government’s foreign terrorist organization blacklist. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud campaigned for the terror designation in private meetings with Trump administration officials when he visited Washington in October, according to two sources familiar with the Saudi requests.

The topic dominated his conversation with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the U.S.-Saudi Strategic Dialogue, sources said, just weeks after the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and two of Saudi Arabia’s closest Gulf state allies.

“They put a lot of emphasis on this,” a former senior Trump administration official said, recalling the Saudi visit. “No one thought their arguments were very persuasive — that is, 'Why would the designation weaken the Houthis?' So, I can only conclude that it was just promised to them as part of the Abraham Accords.”

State Department officials considered a more modest rebuke of the Houthis, through the use of the Treasury Department’s power to punish Specially Designated Global Terrorists, but Pompeo ultimately opted for the maximalist option.

“There were discussions at State about holding off because it was nearly the end of the term, or of doing just the SDGT rather than the FTO as well,” the former official said. “The humanitarian issues were understood, but the Houthis kept on engaging in terrorist activity, so the argument for designating them won out. In the end, and despite the date, they really got designated as terrorists because they kept on attacking civilian targets.”

Pompeo’s imposition of the foreign terrorist label in January provoked bipartisan opposition because it would cut off humanitarian aid to people driven by the conflict to the brink of starvation. Houthi entrenchment in major Yemeni cities makes it practically impossible to distribute humanitarian aid without engaging with the militants.

“It really is like a Hezbollah-like entity that is in the government,” the Senate Republican aide said. “And with that, those large segments of the population that are under their control would have been cut off from this outside assistance that is absolutely required to keep the population alive.”

Hezbollah is the Iran-backed terrorist organization that now plays a leading role in the Lebanese government, with control of the funds that pass through the health ministry even as its militants stockpile Iranian missiles aimed at Israel. Iran doesn’t control the Houthis to the degree it dominates Lebanese Hezbollah, but the Yemeni development is, in a sense, even more dire.

“It is a very big deal if Iran is able to overthrow a government and have its ally or proxy take over a country,” the former Trump administration official said, adding Iran has co-opted government entities in Iraq and Syria. “If you add to that actually overthrowing a government and taking over a country, it's a significant expansion of Iranian power and influence in the region.”

Houthi forces feel the wind at their backs with a new offensive underway to seize one of the last major cities controlled by government loyalists. “It's a really difficult problem, and therefore, it's a really difficult problem for the Biden administration,” said the former Trump administration official.