Senators Clash over U.S. Involvement and Iran’s Role in Yemen Conflict

 “To me, American policy in the Middle East is a broken record and the record is entitled military escalation,” said Senator Chris Murphy at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Yemen late last week. “I have sat through this hearing over and over again with respect to US policy in Iraq, US policy in Syria, US policy in Yemen. We are told that just a little bit more military intervention will eventually create fertile ground for peace and every time we are essentially wrong.”
 

As is too often the case on Capitol Hill, the hearing – which was framed as an examination of U.S. interests and risks to U.S. policy in the war in Yemen – devolved into a conversation dominated by Iran hawks who inflated Iran’s influence and sought to play down Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict.

During the hearing, former Ambassador to Yemen (2010-2013) Gerald Feierstein testified that Iran is benefiting from the conflict in Yemen and even claimed Saudi Arabia’s image was suffering as a result.

“The government of Iran has been the main beneficiary of the conflict in Yemen at a relatively low cost. Iran has inflicted an expensive, draining conflict on the Saudis and their coalition partners. The Saudis have suffered reputational damage internationally and the conflict has caused friction between Saudi Arabia and its key Western partners,” said Feierstein.

Sen. Corker also suggested that Iran is ultimately at fault for the escalation of the Yemen conflict.

“Iran has exploited this conflict to increase its influence in the region. They continue to provide arms to the Houthi force despite a U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting such actions. Houthis have used these weapons to attack U.S. ships off the Yemeni coast and they are launching missiles across the border into Saudi Arabia,” said Corker.

To interpret the war in Yemen as a competition that Iran has dragged Saudi Arabia into certainly reflects the Saudi kingdom’s narrative about the war, but it ignores a half century of history.  After all, it was Saudi Arabia that instituted a naval blockade on Yemen in 2015 and began airstrikes against the Yemeni Houthi uprising, while Iran in fact warned the Houthis against occupying the capital of Sanaa. Last summer, the New York Times reported on leaked documents from the Saudi foreign ministry that reveal an obsession with Iran and Yemen that verges on the conspiratorial. Clearly, Saudi Arabia is primarily responsible for reputational damage as a result of its conduct in waging war against its neighbor.

While many have framed the war as one to push back against external Iranian aggression, in reality the roots of the conflict stem from tribal conflict and religious sectarianism from inside of Yemen. Yemen has faced a low intensity civil war and insurgency since the formation of South Yemen in 1967 and the unification of north and south in 1990. Significant fighting occurred well before the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Feierstein, who is now at the Middle East Institute, alluded to the tribal roots of the civil war. “It is in fact a tribal conflict in many areas of the country,” said Feierstein. He added that “al-Qaeda is seen as a supporter of Arab Sunni tribal interests.”

Thomas Joscelyn who is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies acknowledged in his testimony that the Houthis are not actually a proxy of Iran but are indigenous to Yemen.

“Some have said the Houthis are not the equivalent of Hezbollah, or an Iranian proxy. That’s correct. I do not treat them as an Iranian proxy, but they are closely allied with Iran in the war so I don’t care if they are a proxy or not,” said Joscelyn.

Unfortunately for Joscelyn’s assertion, it is relevant whether the Houthis are a proxy of Iran or not because it gets to the heart of whether Iran controls the conflict – which it does not. Regardless of whether Iran supports the Houthis, the conflict is indigenous to Yemen, and as such requires a Yemeni answer.

Joscelyn testified to the indigenous nature of the conflict when he added “It’s not just Iran that is backing the Houthis but also Saleh’s network in Yemen plays a key role in this…he doesn’t want to necessarily serve Iran’s agenda in Yemen. His objectives are not necessarily in lockstep with Iran.” Ali Abdullah Saleh served as the president of unified Yemen from 1990 until his ouster in 2012 and enjoys support from Zaidi Shiites in the country.

Sen. Rand Paul, who – along with Senator Murphy – led past efforts to block military aid to Saudi Arabia in light of its actions in Yemen, departed from many of his colleagues at the hearing and questioned the Kingdom’s commitment to reducing collateral damage in the conflict.

“The United States has the technical ability to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should,” warned Paul.

“I think we don’t have enough discussion about the practical ramifications of whether or not we kill more terrorists than we create. I think Yemen is a perfect example of this,” Paul continued. “We’re supplying Saudis with bombs, refueling the planes, picking the targets. I assume that we didn’t pick the target of a funeral procession but we wounded 500 people and 140 people. I say we–the Saudis did it, but with our armaments. You think the Yemenis don’t know where the bombs are coming from?”

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Adam Weinstein
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