Iran Outmaneuvering Saudi Arabia Over Yemen

With President Rouhani’s calm style, the new U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, and Iran’s coordination with the Pakistani-Turkish Yemeni peace initiative, Iran is projecting a degree of moderation and rational behavior far beyond the norm for major actors involved in the Mideast. The contrast with Saudi Arabia’s air campaign interfering in the Yemeni civil war could hardly be more blatant.

Rouhani’s cool refusal to respond emotionally to initial anti-Iran rhetoric by Erdogan and other Turkish officials as the Saudi air war against the Houthi rebels heated up quickly paid off, with Erdogan reversing course and cooperating with Pakistan and Iran to oppose the Saudi adventure. Iranian diplomats have followed up by traveling throughout the region to promote a negotiated solution in Yemen, albeit so far with no visible success on the ground in Yemen, and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif offered a smoothly conciliatory, if superficial, call for a negotiated peace in Yemen as the key to regional anti-terrorism in a New York Times op-ed. It is particularly noteworthy that this new tripartite coalition crosses Muslim sectarian lines in an effort justifiable both to avoid the dangers of new violence and simply to minimize Muslims killing Muslims but which also offers a model for saving Syria, not to mention facilitating mutual economic benefits (e.g., Iranian hydrocarbon exports to both Turkey and Pakistan).

Washington seems confused, playing both sides. That, in itself, could be a sign of a highly nuanced foreign policy and perhaps it is, but in this case it appears more a result of confusion. Iran is the de facto military ally of the U.S. in the desperate effort to stop ISIS from transforming Iraq into a radical jihadi base, and the new nuclear agreement is nothing if not tenuous. A joint U.S.-Saudi military campaign in the infinitely complex, three-way Yemeni civil war with its ever-changing alliances of convenience among Houthis, the former dictator (backed by the U.S. for years), and the new U.S.-backed leader-in-exile—not to mention al Qua’ida and surely soon ISIS–seems almost guaranteed to ruin Obama’s last years in office and pave the way for a joint victory of still lurking U.S. neo-cons and Israeli extremists—both of whom fervently believe that war is the answer, whatever the question.

The current Turkish-Pakistani-Iranian peace movement, with its emphasis on the obvious dangers of yet another round of international gasoline being poured on a Mideast sectarian fire, seems a far wiser position. Long ago, a great speech in the far-away land of Cairo was given and then immediately forgotten by a young, new leader. Obama, approaching retirement, should lock his office door and read that speech very slowly to himself, and think about the uplifting message that it contained.

The New York Times has already reported that the Saudis have slaughtered “dozens of civilians.” Evidently feeling the regional displeasure, Riyadh announced the end of its attacks despite their limited impact on military positions…and then promptly hit a new city in a bizarre move hardly designed to pave the way for mutual trust or to impress anyone with Riyadh’s reliability. Meanwhile, Yemen’s already poor prospects have now considerably worsened, with ex-dictator Saleh very much back in the picture, the Houthis surely radicalized, and al Qua’ida taking advantage of the chaos. Regional implications include the weakening of Saudi prestige after the exposure of the strength of its neighbors’ opposition to its military adventure and consolidation of Iran’s regional diplomatic position, with further noteworthy ripples no doubt coming.

One of the first such ripples may well be a negative impact on the prospects for finding a regional compromise regarding Syria, now that the Yemeni imbroglio has strained regional relations. On the other hand, if the new understanding between Erdogan and Rouhani is sustained, the door to resolving the Syrian civil war via Turkish-Iranian compromise could be thrown wide open (and the alternative possibility of resolution via a Turkish-Saudi “Sunni offensive” be slammed shut). Indeed, a recent State Department signal of a softening of the hardline (and short-sighted) U.S. refusal to include Iran in international talks on Syria has already improved the atmosphere for a possible Ankara-Tehran Syrian initiative. Riyadh may have learned in Yemen to think carefully before committing its air force abroad, and a joint Sunni Turkish-Shi’i Iranian proposal on Syria would command the world’s attention. Whatever the impact on Syria, Saudi airplanes bombing civilian towns will be no more the solution to Yemen’s problems that similar tactics have been in Iraq or Palestine.

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