Commentary Magazine


America Looked the Other Way While Iran Started a War in Yemen

When critics of President Barack Obama’s administration allege that his White House is directly responsible for the spiraling instability overtaking the Middle East, they do not merely cite the president’s policy of malignant neglect as the likely cause of this condition. Many would contend that the administration has been actively restructuring America’s regional framework of alliances in order to meet present challenges and pursue domestic policy goals like the extrication of Washington from Middle Eastern security affairs. Perhaps the most glaring example of the undue deference Washington yielded to irresponsible actors like Iran is how the United States turned a blind eye toward Tehran while it sparked a bloody regional proxy war in Yemen.

The Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen were suspected of having military and diplomatic links to Iran long before they captured the capital of Sana’a last year, but that alliance did not give Washington pause before it offered to help the “virulently anti-American” Houthi forces come to power. On January 29, the Wall Street Journal revealed that administration officials had approached Houthi commanders and offered to speed the group’s transition to power in Yemen following the ouster of pro-Western President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The strategic implications of this tectonic shift in Washington’s approach to regional security matters were immediately apparent. “The shift also could place it on the same side as Iran in the Yemen conflict,” the Journal reported. “U.S. officials said they also are seeking to harness the Houthis’ concurrent war on AQAP to weaken the terrorist organization’s grip on havens in Yemen’s west and south.”

For the Middle East’s Sunni powers, Washington’s overture to the Houthis reflected Obama’s belief that non-state Sunni militia groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State rather than state actors like Iran posed the gravest threat to U.S. interests in the region. In Riyadh, Manama, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi, it was obvious that Iran was behind the effort to upend the status quo in Yemen. What’s more, they knew that Washington had deliberately turned a blind eye to Iran’s efforts to destabilize their backyards.

The Financial Times reported last week that, right around the time that Washington was making overtures to the Tehran-backed Shiite militia in command of the Yemeni capital and preparing to expand its influence South toward Aden and the Red Sea’s key Bab-el-Mandeb strait, Iran was covertly supporting the militia with massive aid shipments.

“Maritime data obtained by the Financial Times show that at least four large cargo ships, with a combined capacity of more than 15,000 tonnes, made a series of highly unusual and undeclared trips between Iran and Yemeni ports controlled by the Houthis in the first few months of this year,” read the FT dispatch.

All four undertook voyages to transport cargo from the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran to Yemen’s Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida — a route none had plied before — after the Houthi capture of Sana’a in January. The ships changed their ensigns, turned off their tracking devices at key points during their voyages, registered false information in international shipping logs and met unidentified craft mid-ocean.

Details of their activity were provided to the FT by Windward, a maritime intelligence service set up by two former Israeli naval officers. The data comprise information from dozens of non-public and proprietary shipping registers as well as public information and satellite and radio tracking logs that [the maritime intelligence service] Windward has compiled. Where possible the information has been independently corroborated by the FT.

“If you look at any one piece of these ships’ activities by itself it might seem legitimate, but if you look at all of it together, there’s no way it can be,” said Ami Daniel, Windward’s chief executive. “This behavior is neither logical or economical – it indicates that there is a sovereign, not a commercial interest at stake.”

Indeed, there is no alternative explanation for these ships’ behavior. This revelation comes just one month after a standoff between U.S. and Iranian naval forces after a convoy of Iranian warships believed to be overtly delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen was intercepted by American naval forces. That convoy was forced to return home, but this event has been followed by weeks of maritime tensions characterized by the harassment and commandeering of internationally flagged cargo vessels by Iranian naval forces when those ships stray too near the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters while traversing the Strait of Hormuz.

Hanlon’s Razor dictates that the White House believed that its obstinate refusal to address Iranian provocations was the only way to keep Iran at the negotiating table and mitigate the serious threat to international security posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon. But this approach also sent the unmistakable message to the Sunni Gulf Arab states that the United States would no longer defer to their concerns. These nations heard that message loud and clear. Washington’s inaction resulted in airstrikes on Libyan positions conducted by Egyptian and UAE air forces and a creation 10-member Arab military coalition that continues to execute sustained combat operations in Yemen.

The United Nations estimates that at least 1,037 civilians have been killed in Yemen since the end of March, including 130 women and 234 children. Another 2,453 civilians have been injured in the fighting. All this sacrifice has been made in service to the administration’s goal of extricating the United States from Middle Eastern affairs and rehabilitating Iran. If the Iraq War was a careless pursuit, at least George W. Bush could gauge and control America’s involvement in that conflict. The forces Barack Obama has unleashed in the Middle East are, by design, beyond his ability to restrain.

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