Nowhere is the inexorable pull of the Middle East muddle on the U.S. more in evidence than in Yemen, an otherwise obscure Arab country located on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
But its size and isolation demonstrate as much as any of the many conflicts in the region how the U.S. gets entangled. If the Shia rebels gain control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait linking the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, Iran could attain a foothold, a major concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, but also for Israel, the European countries along the Mediterranean, and ultimately, the U.S. Navy.
A ceasefire is collapsing. It aimed at ending Yemen’s four-year proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backs the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, and Iran, which backs tribal-based Shiite rebels, known as Houthis. Resumption of hostilities would accelerate the threat to Yemen’s 15 million people — more than half the population — with starvation.
Iran denies it provides financial and military support to the Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of Allah). But according to the United Nations, Tehran has been supplying the rebels with weapons for more than a decade.
Roots for the conflict go back to September 1962, when a revolution replaced a 1,000-year-old absolute hereditary Shiite monarchy — the Zaidi imamate — with a secular regime, the Republic of Yemen.
Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, founder and chief ideologue of the Houthi movement, lived for a time in Qom, the main city in Iran for Shia religious studies, where he accepted the works of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution. It was Khomeini who in 1979 transformed Iran into an Islamic theocracy. Al-Houthi reportedly believes that Yemen should be modeled on the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of his books is called “Iran in the Philosophy of Hussein Houthi.” The Houthis shout the anti-American and anti-Semitic slogan — “Allahu Akbar! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!”.
In March 2015, Tehran announced an “air bridge” between Iran and Sanaa with a twice-daily shuttle service operated by Mahan Air, an Iranian government-controlled airline used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards” Quds Force to ferry trainers and equipment to war zones. Hundreds of Hezbollah operatives, as well as members of the Iranian military, were said to have been transported from Yemen to Iran and back. Almost simultaneously, Saudi Arabia and a Western-backed coalition of ten Sunni Arab states — alarmed by Iran’s attempt — began a military intervention against Houthi targets to restore the previous regime. The Saudi-led coalition, despite having superior air power, quickly got bogged down by the Houthis’ adeptness at asymmetric warfare that reached a military stalemate that continues to this day.
Since the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, Yemen has become a key site for U.S. intelligence gathering and drone attacks on Al-Qaeda. According to a February 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service, U.S. officials considered Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula the Al-Qaeda affiliate “most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States.”
In November 2018, the United States announced that it was halting the aerial refueling of aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen. A month later, in December 2018, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution calling for the removal of American troops from Yemen. In March 2019, the U.S. Senate followed that up with a vote to remove U.S. troops from Yemen within 30 days. In April 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution to end American military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The White House has vowed to veto the resolution. It has stated that the resolution raises “serious constitutional concerns” — meaning that it would not be in the U.S. interest to abandon Yemen to Iran.
The warring parties had signed a series of UN-sponsored agreements — known collectively as the Stockholm Agreement — facilitating movement of 70% of its food imports through Yemen’s main Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The Houthis pledged to withdraw from Hodeidah and Saudi-led coalition forces promised to retreat from the outskirts of the city.
The troop withdrawals were intended to clear the way for wider negotiations to end the war. But the agreement is ambiguous; it does not, for instance, stipulate who should control the port in Hodeidah after the Houthis withdraw. In January 2019, Houthi rebels used an Iranian-supplied drone to attack a pro-government military parade at the Al-Anad military base. Yemen’s chief of military intelligence, Major General Mohammad Saleh Tamah, and the Yemeni army’s deputy chief of staff, Major General Saleh Al-Zindani, died of wounds sustained in the attack.
Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has said that he will not allow Iran to establish a “Persian” state in Yemen. The UN panel of experts, however, has concluded that Yemen’s ability to remove the Houthis (much less the Iranians) from northern Yemen is limited.