Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Bomb


WASHINGTON– Saudi Arabia’s ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen, Operations Decisive Storm and Renewing Hope, highlights a looming contradiction in future American policy toward the Middle East. By forming a coalition including eight other Arab air forces, and gaining American logistical and intelligence support, Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention shows how a potential nuclear deal with Iran is already shifting the region’s security structure. Moreover, the intervention illuminates the degree to which the United States has underappreciated the burden the deal places on its long-standing partnerships with its Gulf Arab allies.

The Saudi intervention is not unprecedented. Yemen is to Saudi Arabia as Ukraine is to Russia: the Saudis consider Yemen firmly within their sphere of influence and any perceived encroachment on the country by a foreign power will be challenged. Riyadh made this view clear as early as the 1960s; during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war— back when the Arab Cold War was fought along monarchist vs. Arab nationalist fault lines rather than sectarian ones—the Saudis backed Yemen’s Zaydi Shi’a Imam against a republican coup supported by the Egyptian military.

Though the Riyadh-backed Imamate lost, Saudi Arabia maintained extensive stipend payments to tribal sheikhs throughout Yemen’s north. By the 2000s, however, the efficacy of the Saudi payment network in achieving Saudi policy goals in Yemen began to wane. At the same time, the Yemeni government’s war with the Houthis, which had been running off-and-on since 2004, spread to Saudi territory as Houthi forces briefly occupied villages inside Saudi territory in 2009. It is no surprise then that Saudi Arabia considered the Houthi takeover of Sana’a and the collapse of the Hadi government in 2015 a crisis justifying military intervention, especially given the Houthis’ willingness to accept Iranian arms and financial support and Riyadh’s desire to reassert its influence over Yemen’s domestic politics.

However, the Saudi intervention is more than a simple reflection of Yemen’s special security importance to Saudi Arabia. By pulling in the United States and far-flung Arab partners like Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and much of the GCC, Riyadh signaled that it sees the Yemen intervention as part of a larger regional conflict with Iran and that it has a broad coalition, including the United States, in its corner.

The U.S. State Department apparently sees things differently. An unnamed State Department official recently told Politico, “you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what everyone agrees is the biggest threat to the region.”

What this official misses is that Riaydh sees the changes brought by a potential P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran in a far more skeptical light. An Iran nuclear deal will not allay fears of Iran in Riyadh and other Sunni Arab capitals. From their perspective, Tehran is achieving success after success in the region — Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and now Yemen — all while subject to an oppressive international sanctions regime. To them, Iran is already a threat, even without a nuclear weapons program.

If and when a deal is struck, Iran will still not have a nuclear program, but sanctions will be lifted. In the view from Riyadh and like-minded capitals, if Iran can achieve so much while under onerous sanctions, there is no telling what it could achieve when sanctions are lifted. A bomb-less Iran might make America safer, but it hardly changes the security calculus of the Arab nations who, correctly or not, think that Tehran is already stringing together successes across the Middle East.

It is in this sense that Saudi Arabia’s internationalization of the Yemen conflict is a symptom of Saudi Arabia’s fear of Iranian resurgence and an expression of its willingness to rally regional allies to stand against perceived Iranian threats. Accordingly, to prevent the dangerous internationalization of future conflicts, the United States must make serious efforts to address its Sunni Arab allies’ fears. A successful Iran deal may be good for regional and global security in the long run, but the United States cannot pretend that such as deal does not have complicating short- and medium-term consequences. Comments such as those made to Politico by the State Department official suggest the United States has seriously underappreciated these consequences.

How will the United States balance its desire to reduce tensions with Iran with its long-standing commitment to Gulf Arab security? The United States has supported Operation Decisive Storm to demonstrate commitment to Saudi security, but to what extent will the United States support future Saudi-led muscle flexing? Is the United States willing to follow a successful Iran deal with an intense diplomatic push to reduce the heightened Arab-Iranian tensions that will follow? The Iran deal is just the beginning of a new regional security order. Are U.S. policymakers ready to handle the consequences?

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