REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah A man reacts to the scene after a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa, February 2016.

How the U.S. Is Empowering Iran in Yemen

Washington's Policy Is a Strategic Blunder and a Humanitarian Disaster

The Trump administration’s top goal in the Middle East is clear: counter Iran, which U.S. President Donald Trump and his senior officials have denounced as a duplicitous and murderous state sponsor of terrorism and sower of regional chaos. In May, the Trump administration invoked Tehran’s regional ambitions to justify U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Just this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that Iran’s regime was bent upon “the export of Islamic revolution and the destruction of its neighbors.”

Yet such warnings of the Iranian threat miss a key factor: the United States’ own policies have at times advanced rather than hindered Tehran’s regional ambitions. Nowhere is this clearer than in Yemen. U.S. support for a brutal Saudi-led military campaign in the country has created a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions, while offering an opening for Iran to expand its influence in the country. Military intervention has made insurgents more reliant on support from Tehran and is turning civilians against U.S. partners. If Washington wants to counter Iranian influence, it needs to reverse course—ending its disastrous support for the Saudi-led coalition and throwing its weight behind peace talks. Doubling down on the military effort will serve only to further Iran’s regional ascendance.                       

UNEXPECTED COSTS

The roots of the current conflict in Yemen trace back to the early 2000s, when Houthi rebels from the northern region of Saada repeatedly rebelled against the regime of then resident Ali Abdullah Saleh, hoping to increase their share of state patronage. Arab Spring protests in 2011 forced Saleh to step down and hand power to his second-in-command, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Behind the scenes, however, Saleh schemed with loyal military forces to retain his influence. Taking advantage of the ensuing chaos, Houthi rebels conquered the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. By the following year, they controlled much of Yemen. Fighting against the Houthis—and among each other—were supporters of Hadi’s government, a local al Qaeda branch,

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