The civil war in Yemen has entered in third year, with Saudi Arabia-led forces continuing to use air strikes to attack Houthi forces. When the U.S. offered its political and military support to the Saudi-led bombing campaign two years ago, no one imagined that offensive would go on this long.
The Saudi government gave a number of justifications for their intervention in Yemen, but the primary one has been to restore the sitting president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to power and at the same time, defend their territory from Houthi forces.
In 2015, a U.S. official claimed, “One reason why the Saudi intervention is positive, is we don’t want AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] to try to establish itself as the vanguard of Sunni opposition to the Houthis.” Yet, the other unspoken reason back then was that the Obama administration wanted to get Saudi Arabia’s support for the Iran nuclear deal, which was finalized that year.
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, minority leader of the House Intelligence Committee, said that support from the U.S. would be perceived in the region “as an indicator of our willingness to push back against Iranian efforts to increase hegemony in the region [and] that may influence how comfortable they are with the nuclear agreement.” He later added, “It is very important for the U.S. to have Saudi Arabia’s back when it comes to Yemen.”
“In the last few months…there has been growing evidence of Iranian involvement on the weapons front,” said Iona Craig, a reporter who was living in Sanaa at the time in the beginning of the war. “Ballistic missiles…have clearly been modified, and new missiles have been built in Yemen to fire over the Saudi border – long-range missiles that did not exist in the Yemeni arsenal before this war have been used.”
The head of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command tasked with safeguarding the waters off Yemen said the U.S. and its allies had intercepted five weapons shipments from Iran destined for the Houthis. American commanders are also convinced that Iran is training rebels to operate sophisticated weapons and radar systems.
A senior Trump administration official told NBC News that Iran appeared to be seeking “to leverage this relationship with the Houthis to build a long-term presence in Yemen.”
Additionally, both the Houthi and Tehran have boasted of their ability to attack Saudi Arabia. The longer the war goes on, the greater Iran’s influence in the country becomes. In early February, for example, Houthi Ansarullah fighters confirmed they fired a ballistic missile at the Saudi capital of Riyadh and vowed they would be attacking again. Locals in the area reported on Twitter that the missile struck a military camp west of Riyadh.
“This is the risk and this is the danger,” said Craig. “The longer this war goes on, the likelihood is of more Iranian involvement rather than less.”
It could prove to be what the Trump administration needs to fight Iran in Yemen, with the Houthis and the Yemeni people right in the middle. Additionally, this seems to be part of a larger struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. Yemen is also in a strategic location within the region.
Others fear that with Iranian backing, the Houthis could be capable of becoming the Yemeni version of Hezbollah. “Both sides [Iran and the U.S.] are testing each other to see how far each side is going to go,” said Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at the Middle East program at London’s Chatham House think tank. “The question is how is that tit-for-tat going to be defined?…Will it be rhetorical or will it result in military conflict?”
Throughout the Trump administration, the approach is that an enemy is an enemy 100% and it is evident that it is a harder approach than President Obama did, including Iran in its list of majority-Muslim countries whose citizens would be temporarily banned from entering the United States.