- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Yemeni government’s fall to Iran-backed Shiite militants last week is only the latest sign that Tehran is “on the march” and that President Obama needs a battle plan to rout extremists across the Middle East, the administration’s critics charged Sunday.

Traveling in India, Mr. Obama held out hope for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Yemen, as ethnic Houthi rebels from the north overran the capital city of Sanaa and attempts to broker a peace deal faltered over the weekend.

He called Yemen “a dangerous country in a dangerous part of the world” and rejected reports that the U.S. had suspended its anti-terrorist operations, including drone strikes, targeting al Qaeda operatives in the country.

“We continue to go after high-value targets inside of Yemen, and we will continue to maintain the pressure that’s required to keep the American people safe,” he said at an event in New Delhi. The strategy “is not neat and it is not simple, but it is the best option we have.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, warned Sunday that Mr. Obama has shown little ability to confront Shiite Iran or the growing threat of Islamic State militants, a group of Sunni extremists who have taken over a wide swath of Iraq and Syria.

“So there is no strategy,” Mr. McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “It is delusional for them to think that what they’re doing is succeeding.”

The surge in Yemen last week by Shiite Muslim militants represents what some national security insiders are calling a “huge victory” for Iran, just as the Obama administration faces criticism for being too lenient in nuclear talks with the Islamic republic and appears — at least tacitly — to be coordinating with Tehran against the Sunni terrorists in Iraq.

The Iranian-supported Houthis have long battled for influence among a host of armed factions in Yemen, including the Sunni Muslim group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemen struggle also has become a proxy fight for Iran with Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled Sunni Muslim groups in the country along its southern border.

The Houthi offensive ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who worked closely with the Obama administration in the battle against AQAP. Whether the emerging government in Sanaa will be as accommodating is a giant question mark.

Iranian proxies

Congressional sources say the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force has been smuggling AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry to the Shiite Houthi rebels since at least 2012. Some analysts now assert that Tehran’s goal has been to shape the Houthis into an Iranian proxy, much the way Hezbollah is in Lebanon.

“Initially, the Houthis had very real and local grievances in Yemen, but over the last few years the Iranians have reached out and co-opted them,” said Michael Rubin, an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Other observers warned of the Iranian connection when the Houthi militants began advancing on Yemen’s capital months ago and said the Hadi government failed to follow through on promises to share power.

On Sunday, Mr. Obama acknowledged that Yemen had “never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability,” even though he previously cited Yemen as a model for how the U.S. should fight groups such as AQAP — a template that the Shiite uprising has thrown into disarray.

“We knew that this was an ongoing challenge over the course of the last several months,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told “Face the Nation.” “That’s why we have been pressing on all the actors to take important steps to address the situation.”

For now, Mr. Obama said, he will rely on targeted strikes and intelligence-sharing with Arab partners in the region.

“The alternative would be for us to play whack-a-mole every time there is a terrorist actor inside of any given country, to deploy U.S. troops,” the president said. “And that’s not a sustainable strategy.”

Mr. Obama will cut his trip to India short to visit Saudi Arabia, where he will pay his respects after the death of King Abdullah and greet the new ruler, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.

The oil-rich kingdom plays a valuable role in counterterrorism efforts in the region.

“I think it’s a very good call,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Vital seaways

Tehran may be eyeing through its influence in Yemen control of a key waterway in the Persian Gulf known as the Bab-el-Mandeb straight, which links the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, analysts said.

“It serves as the world’s main oil transit waterway and main shipping lifeline through the Suez Canal,” Amal Mudallali, a Middle East analyst with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in Foreign Policy in October.

“If the Houthis secured Bab-el-Mandeb and the sea in Al Hudaydah governate, another strategic waterway, they would control the traffic from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, a sobering prospect for those worried about increased Iranian influence in the region,” Ms. Mudallali wrote.

More immediately, Mr. Rubin said, Yemen threatens to become a kind of “Syria 2.0,” with a proxy war between Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia likely to escalate.

With the Hadi government staggered, questions are swirling over how Washington can proceed with its war on the al Qaeda branch.

While the White House insists it will not coordinate with Iran in the fight against Sunni extremists in other areas — most notably in the war against the Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq — there are signs the administration is more open to the possibility than it says publicly.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry effectively gave the green light for Iran to use direct military force against Islamic State targets in Iraq in December but said there are no plans for U.S. forces in the region to actively coordinate with their Iranian counterparts.

“I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place and it’s confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact the net effect is positive,” Mr. Kerry told reporters at the time.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. will take a similar posture in Yemen, but speculation over working with Tehran comes amid heightened criticism — especially from Republican lawmakers in Washington — of Mr. Obama’s handling of ongoing nuclear talks with Tehran.

The invitation last week by House Republicans to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu — a vocal critic of the nuclear talks with Iran — to address Congress added fuel to the clash between Capitol Hill and the White House over additional sanctions against Tehran. Mr. Obama has threatened to veto any sanctions legislation, saying it could scuttle the nuclear talks and heighten the risk of a military showdown.

Mr. Rubin argues that the Obama administration’s claims to be making progress in the talks are unfounded.

“Cooperation between the U.S. and Iran on the nuclear issue seems more rhetorical than real,” he said. “The Iranians aren’t an altruistic power. What’s going on in the Middle East is basically three-dimensional chess and President Obama is still playing checkers.”


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