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Tony Badran

Over the heads of the Saudis

Yet again, Obama demonstrates that, in sharp contrast to his allies, he indeed regards Iran as the solution to intractable problems in the Middle East

An Iranian holds a cardboard cutout of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during a demonstration against airstrikes against Houthis in Yemen, outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, on 13 April 2015. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

“Iran is part of the problem in Yemen, not part of the solution,” said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States on Wednesday. The statement was an indirect rebuke of President Obama, who in an interview the day before had said that his administration had "indicated to the Iranians that they need to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.” 

 

This public disagreement is evidence of a broad rift that has done much to shape the conflict in Yemen. Publicly, Obama claims to support of the Saudis, but behind the scenes, he has tilted much more toward Iran than he lets on. Whereas the Saudi goal is to shut Iran out of Yemen, Obama sees Iran as a principal stakeholder. His officials have been in constant communication with the Iranians over Yemen, and have been pushing for a Saudi ceasefire. Obama’s position works to the benefit of Tehran. Yet again, he has demonstrated that, in sharp contrast to his allies, he indeed regards Iran as the solution to intractable problems in the Middle East.

 

The full extent of the administration’s tilt toward Tehran in Yemen has only come out in the last few days. On Monday, unnamed senior officials made plain the White House’s lack of enthusiasm for the Saudi operation. “The White House would like Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies to curtail the airstrikes and narrow the objective to focus on protecting the Saudi border,” one official said. 

 

“At some point, an air campaign has diminishing and marginal returns,” another official told columnist David Ignatius the following day. “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Yemen conflict will have to be solved politically.” At the same time, other administration officials played up Iran’s supposedly positive intentions, claiming that Tehran had in fact discouraged the Houthis from taking over Sanaa.

 

Once the Saudis did announce an end to Operation Decisive Storm, the administration quickly took credit, leaking that it was US pressure that made Riyadh back down. “The Saudis,” a State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday, “understand that the path forward here needs to be dialogue.” 

 

Obama was signaling a kind of indirect partnership with Tehran, which the Iranians were quick to exploit. On Tuesday, hours before the Saudis even made their announcement, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian preemptively declared “that in the coming hours, after many efforts, we will see a halt to military attacks in Yemen.” With this seemingly innocuous statement, the Iranians showed the world that they are negotiating with the Americans over the heads of the Saudis.

 

Abdollahian had honed this tactic with another US ally; Israel. Following the Israeli strike on an Iranian convoy in the Golan in January, Abdollahian similarly revealed that Tehran was a primary interlocutor with Washington, and that it was telling the Americans to reign in their ally.

 

In this latest example of the ploy, pro-Iranian media in Lebanon helped drive the point home, claiming that US Secretary of State John Kerry had called his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif on Tuesday to inform him that Washington would press Riyadh to shut down its military operations. 

 

According to the State Department’s spokeswoman, Marie Harf, the Lebanese report was false. Even while dismissing it, however, she seemed to affirm the very collusion between Washington and Tehran that the report claimed to reveal. She did not rule out communication between Kerry and Zarif about Yemen “in the last week.” What’s more, she suggested that Kerry and Zarif had discussed Yemen while in Lausanne—despite the administration’s repeated denials that anything but Iran’s nuclear program was being discussed. 

 

Meanwhile, the Saudis have not folded. They are continuing operations, if on a different scale, while declaring their will to escalate should the Houthis fail to meet the conditions of the ceasefire. Second, they openly objected to Obama’s intention to include Iran as a stakeholder in Yemen. “Iran should not have any say in Yemeni affairs,” Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, the Kingdom’s ambassador to Britain, told Reuters.

 

Much like the Israelis, the Saudis can no longer operate on the assumption that they will receive American support. President Obama seems to believe that by including Iranians in negotiations, he is bringing “equilibrium” to the Middle East. Seen from the perspective of Saudi Arabia and Israel, however, Obama’s doctrine of “equilibrium” seems like a recipe for further conflict. It emboldens Iran, which—feeling the American wind in its sails—pushes home its advantage. And it leaves America’s allies with no choice but to resist Iran’s expansion—and Obama’s doctrine, which lends it recognition.

 

In short, equilibrium is a fantasy. Or maybe it is something much worse. Perhaps it is just the least objectionable way of saying that Obama is now siding with Iran. 

 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

 

An Iranian holds a cardboard cutout of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during a demonstration against airstrikes against Houthis in Yemen, outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, on 13 April 2015. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

‘…we will see a halt to military attacks in Yemen.’ With this seemingly innocuous statement, the Iranians showed the world that they are negotiating with the Americans over the heads of the Saudis.”

  • Beiruti

    What Mr. Badran seems to sidestep is that the Saudis had charged into Yemen with their airforce, found that they could not accomplish their military objectives by strategic even sloppy bombing, what is needed is boots on the ground and there, the Saudis hit a dead end. The King will not put Saudi boots on the ground. His Arab allies, who bribe their citizens so that the Emirs and Kings can stay in power are not about to call upon their young men to die in Yemen so as to keep the Bab-el-Mandeb open for Saudi Oil Shipments. The US will not put US boots on the ground there either. So, there had to be a way for the Saudi air campaign to end with the Saudis not losing face for having started something that they are not able to finish. It seems that Badran berates President Obama for not ordering American lives to be put at risk in Yemen and instead going to the Iranians, who fund and arm the Houthis to work out a cease fire. If Badran feels this way, he should strap on his boots and go to Yemen. Take some friends too.

    April 25, 2015

  • jrocks

    So how does this exactly affect the Americans, that there's continuous conflict between Iran (and satellites) and Saudi (and satellites)?

    April 25, 2015

  • sam.h.hariri

    Including Iran in negotiations over Yemen essentially gives Iran a veto power. It means that if Iran does not agree on the outcome, then there would not be an agreement and giving Iran Yemen as another card to blackmail the World with.

    April 25, 2015

  • يسترجي

    That is just talk, if Clinton wins it may continue until a republican wins afterwards, and there is no such thing as siding with A or B, there is just making sure no ones gets too strong to beat the other... And besides, the US and Iran have been together since they embargoed Saddam and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq 12 years ago, they have been together ever since they supported Israel against Egypt, they were with Iran since they brought Khomeini onboard AirFrance to Iran, ever since they hit the Ottoman emoire a hundred years ago... This site is becoming a philosophy blog more and more....

    April 24, 2015