Washington, D.C. – “Saudi Arabia does not share our American values. It’s time to question whether the aid we’re providing Saudi Arabia is making our country any safer,” argued Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) during Monday’s debate on a resolution (H.Res. 599) addressing the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict. It marked the first debate on the House floor on U.S. support for the Saudi bombing campaign, which has been ongoing since 2015 and resulted in a famine and humanitarian disaster. However, the debate was fractured between those eager to halt U.S. support for the Saudi campaign and those hoping to avoid criticizing Saudi actions by pinning the blame for the conflict entirely on Iran.
Khanna and other legislators were sharply critical of the U.S. role in the Saudi campaign. Khanna did acknowledge an Iranian role in the conflict but argued that “the extent of Iranian involvement is debateable,” a sharp contrast to remarks from Saudi leaders who pinned the blame for a recent missile launch by the Houthis as an act of war from Iran. Moreover, Khanna argued that Iran’s influence in Yemen has “been exacerbated as a direct result of Saudi actions.” He concluded his remarks with a warning: “We must learn from our own history – we armed Saddam Hussein against Iran and the result was two costly wars for the U.S.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) echoed Khanna’s sentiments and offered a scathing assessment of U.S.-backed Saudi involvement in this conflict. He suggested that Saudi Arabia’s repeated bombing of Yemeni civilians “may very well rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the United Nations.” He urged Congress to rescind its support for by asking if “this Congress [will] send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that its behavior is intolerable? [Or will they] continue to support these potential war criminals?”
However, Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, played up the Iranian role in the conflict. According to Royce, “Yemen has become another front in Iran’s quest for dominance.” He went on to warn that “Iranian meddling in Yemen thwarts peace by empowering the Houthis to resist a return to political negotiations.” Contrary to his assertion, it was recently revealed by former Secretary of State John Kerry that Iran had actually convinced the Houthis and Yemen’s former President – Ali Abdullah Saleh – to return to the table to negotiate. The Saudi-backed Yemeni President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, was the one to refuse.
While Royce argued that the the resolution could be used to pressure Saudi Arabia into re-opening access to Yemen’s ports in order to send much needed aid and relief, it remained unclear how much pressure the non-binding resolution could exert. Khana had sought a vote on separate legislation to cut off U.S. support for the bombing campaign (H.Con.Res. 81), which could have exerted far more pressure. Congressional leadership blocked that vote but allowed the non binding resolution to move forward as a compromise.
Royce remained adamant that halting U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia would only “strengthen Iran’s malign influence in the region” and would not “solve the humanitarian crisis,” blocking the vote that would cut off funding for the Saudis. He emphasized that the U.S.’ main focus should be “neutralizing the Iranian threat” in the region. It remains unclear whether passage of the resolution will prompt additional debate or legislation on the U.S. or Iranian roles in the conflict.