The confusion and cross-purposes that have plagued President Obama’s troubled Middle East policy are only getting worse as the U.S. on Thursday voiced its support for a new Egypt-Saudi military campaign to roll back the Iran-allied rebels in Yemen.
With support from nearly all of the Mideast’s main Sunni Arab powers surging behind the campaign, Yemen appeared to be emerging as ground zero for a potentially widening war pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran — the region’s largest Shiite power.
What’s worse, analysts say, is that the Yemen clash comes as the Obama administration pursues a historic nuclear deal with Iran and while Washington is tacitly coordinating with Tehran in the fight against the Sunni extremist Islamic State group in Iraq.
The White House asserts that developments in Yemen and Iraq should not be tied to the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. But critics say the reality cannot be ignored that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies are loath to accept a U.S.-Iran deal and that the administration is dangerously playing both sides of the fence.
“What we’re seeing right now in the region is a complete and utter strategic collapse on the part of the United States,” said Michael Rubin, a Mideast and national security analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Hillary Mann Leverett, a former State Department negotiator with Iran and now a lecturer at American University, said the floundering nature of the Obama administration’s recent moves is amplified by the fact that Washington is working with Iran in one war while fighting Iran in another — all while claiming that its push for a nuclear deal with Iran is somehow unrelated to either.
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“There has been a central incoherence about U.S. policy in the region for decades, but it’s been on steroids in the last few years,” Mrs. Mann Leverett said during an interview Thursday on MSNBC.
There was speculation that the administration may be trying to win Saudi acquiescence for an Iran nuclear deal by supporting Riyadh’s plan to roll back the Houthi rebels’ gains in Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
Obama administration officials offered only guarded comments Thursday. Asked during an interview on CNN whether U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign will affect the nuclear negotiations, White House spokesman Josh Earnest responded: “It shouldn’t.”
Senior administration officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, have pleaded for patience on the nuclear negotiations. But Mr. Earnest stressed Thursday that “we continue to have concerns about support for terrorism activities around the globe,” as well as “concerns about the way Iran has taken steps that are destabilizing to the broader region.”
Some analysts called it absurd to deny a connection between the nuclear negotiations and the crisis in Yemen. The lining-up of the region’s Sunni powers against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen wouldn’t be occurring if Iranian meddling in the nation had not surged over the past year, they said. Tehran has been emboldened by Washington’s conciliatory posture in the negotiations, critics say.
While the nuclear talks have been playing out over the past year, the administration has been unwilling to “push back against aggressive Iranian behavior,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Others say the administration’s policies track the messy breakdown of alliances in the region.
“Yes, Iran is active on the international stage,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But you could make the same argument about how Iran acted years ago during the George W. Bush era. I think what’s occurring now has more to do with regional developments and Tehran’s opportunistic approach to unrest than it does with any concessions given to Iran in the nuclear negotiations.”
Either way, analysts say, clear dangers are lurking behind the swiftness with which the region’s Sunni powers have combined against Iran.
Foreign ministers from across the Arab world agreed in Egypt on Thursday to form a unified Arab military force for the Yemen campaign and for possible wider coordinated military action.
Egyptian security and military officials said Saudi Arabia and Egypt will lead a ground operation against Shiite rebels and their allies after a campaign of airstrikes to weaken them.
Al-Arabiya reported Thursday that said Saudi Arabia was contributing 100 warplanes to Operation Storm of Resolve and more than 85 were being provided by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.
Egyptian air forces were also reported to be participating, and four naval ships headed to secure the Gulf of Aden, according to Reuters, which also reported that Turkey may provide logistical support.
The news agency reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan directly accused Iran of trying to dominate the Middle East. “It is really not possible to tolerate this. Iran has to understand,” said Mr. Erdogan, who added that Tehran should withdraw any forces it had in Yemen as well as from Syria and Iraq.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, meanwhile, said any threat to Saudi Arabia would “evoke a strong response” from Islamabad, and top Pakistani military officials said Pakistan, which borders eastern Iran, was considering a Saudi request that it send troops to Yemen.
Three senior officials told The Associated Press that forces would enter Yemen by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from the Red Sea and Arabian Sea. They said other nations will also be involved, but did not offer specifics on which ones, nor on troop numbers or when the operation would begin.
The news of a looming ground invasion comes a day after nearly every Sunni monarchy in the Persian Gulf said it would also play a role in the campaign. In a statement released by the Saudi Press Agency on Wednesday, the nations suggested that the goal of the campaign would be to reinstate Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was driven from power by the nation’s Shiite Houthi rebels.
The statement characterized the rebels as a foreign tool — a clear expression of regional anger toward Iran. However, the officials who spoke with The Associated Press on Thursday said the goal of the growing military campaign will be to pressure the rebels into negotiations on power-sharing with Mr. Hadi, who appeared in Riyadh on Thursday after fleeing Yemen this week.