By S P Seth
April 29, 2015
The US is having great difficulty reconciling different and often contradictory strands of its Middle Eastern policy. For instance, while it is tactically supportive of Iran’s military role in Iraq against Islamic State (IS), it is at the same time allied with Saudi Arabia in its military offensive against the Houthis in Yemen, regarded by Iran as “barbaric” and “criminal”. The US’s framework nuclear deal with Iran, opposed by Israel as well as Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, is considered another example of its seemingly contradictory Middle Eastern policy. The broader argument is that if the US is against Iran’s ‘expansionist’ role in the region supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and now the Houthis in Yemen, why is it then forging a tactical alliance with it in Iraq against IS and doing a deal on its nuclear programme? In this regional power play, there is also an overlay of the sectarian Sunni-Shia divide that seems to create its own momentum. And it is being played out viciously in Yemen to thwart the Shia Houthis from consolidating their power and to restore the exiled president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, back into the country’s capital of Sanaa. In the process, the role of Iran, probably marginal at best, is being played out as sinister in its regional designs.
On another level, Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is being feted by the US, reminiscent of the Mubarak days, as a benign strategic regional ally. Egypt’s suspended US military aid is being restored and all is forgotten, more or less, about his coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government and the long prison sentences for its leaders, including the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. Yemen is currently the focus of much of the attention, with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies bombing the Houthis into submission. In the process, many civilians, including children, are dying from senseless and indiscriminate bombing raids. Pakistan has wisely, so far, declined to be part of the Saudi military operations, though it might have to pay a price as Riyadh was counting on it as a virtual ally. Saudi Arabia has been Pakistan’s economic benefactor during difficult times and its refusal is likely to be considered a betrayal of sorts. But it could play a mediating political role because of its good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Riyadh is unlikely to prevail if its first and last option is the restoration of the exiled president, Hadi, now sheltering in Saudi Arabia. The overwhelming Saudi superiority in the air does give it an important advantage but it will increasingly lose popular support as civilian casualties keep mounting, notwithstanding the sectarian overlay of the conflict. A follow up ground attack by the Saudis and its allies, if forthcoming, might end up as Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam. It is worth remembering that the Houthis have been at war with the Yemeni state since 2004, including against the then US and Saudi-allied dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose forces are now allied with the Houthis. In this tug-of-war, al Qaeda in Arabia might further expand its role, nullifying all that the US drone strikes did to kill some of its leaders. Such are the complexities of the conflict in Yemen that the only sure prognosis is likely to be further bloodshed unless there is some political resolution.
And if the conflict is prolonged, as seems likely, Saudi Arabia might come to regret its no-holds-barred military involvement for the simple reason that it could have all sorts of internal implications for a regime that essentially is underpinned by a pact of sorts with the country’s clerical establishment and its tribal leaders. It lacks a popular base at home though the current nationalist upsurge might suggest otherwise. Riyadh is hoping that its aerial bombardment will do overwhelming damage to the Houthis, forcing them into submission. However, if the conflict becomes prolonged and Saudi Arabia gets bogged down, its majority Shia oil-bearing eastern province might also become restive.
Obviously, the US is committed to help the Saudis with weapons, intelligence sharing and whatever else that might be feasible. The US naval fleet is patrolling the regional waters as a deterrent to Iranian naval vessels in the area suspected of carrying weapons’ deliveries for the Houthis. Saudi Arabia is one of the US’s most trusted strategic allies in the region and has been for many decades. The prospective nuclear deal with Iran has strained their relationship but the US is determined to show its Saudi ally and the Arab coalition arranged against the Houthis that it can do a nuclear deal with Iran as well as stand by its friends and allies against Iran’s perceived destabilisation of the region.
In an extensive recent interview with New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman, President Obama sought to highlight the real danger some of the US’s Middle Eastern allies face, notwithstanding all the shrillness of the Iranian threat. Conceding that Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia, have some very real external threats, but they also have some serious internal threats like “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances, I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It is going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. That is a tough conversation to have, but it is one that we have to have.”
But that is precisely what the US’s Arab allies have been seeking to avoid by raising all sorts of real or imaginary external threats. Take Egypt, for instance, where another dictator has usurped power pretending that the transition there has popular legitimacy. In the same way, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies want to close ranks against an imagined Iranian threat from the Houthis in Yemen. If one looks at the relative Iranian and Saudi-led military assets, the Arab coalition is by far much stronger, fortified with its US security pacts. On the other hand, Iran does not have security pacts with any of the world’s major powers.
In other words, Iran has to look at the security scenario much more realistically, notwithstanding the rhetoric now and then in that country for internal consumption. Obama summed up the situation of the Iran ‘threat’ well in his interview when he said, “The truth of the matter is: Iran’s defence budget is $ 30 billion. Our defence budget is closer to $ 600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us.” And with that kind of superpower on their side, the Arab coalition does not have to fear Iran. What they have to fear is, as Obama has pointed out, their own people if they do not start a conversation with them pretty soon.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at email@example.com