- - Monday, April 22, 2019

Nowhere is the intractable misery of the Islamic Middle East and its impact on American interests more evident than in Yemen, an otherwise obscure Arab country on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Yemen’s size and isolation belies how easily the United States can get entangled in religious, political and tribal conflict. If the Shia rebels of Yemen gain control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, linking the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, Iran could attain a foothold in the region. This is a major concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, but also for Israel, the European countries along the Mediterranean, and ultimately, for the U.S. Navy, which must keep sea lanes open.

A ceasefire is collapsing. It aimed at ending Yemen’s four-year proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backs the internationally recognized Yemeni government, and Iran, which backs tribal-based Shiite rebels, known as Houthis. Resumption of hostilities would accelerate the threat of starvation to Yemen’s 15 million people, more than half of the population.

Iran denies it provides financial and military support to the Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, or “Partisans of Allah.” The United Nations accuses Iran of having been supplying the rebels with weapons for more than a decade.

The roots of the conflict go back to September 1962, when a revolution replaced a 1,000-year-old absolute hereditary Shiite monarchy with a secular regime, the Republic of Yemen.

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, founder and chief ideologue of the Houthi movement, lived for a time in Qom, the center in Iran for Shia religious studies, where he studied the teaching of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution. It was this infamous ayatollah who in 1979 transformed Iran into an Islamic theocracy; Al-Houthi apparently wants Yemen to be modeled on the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of his books is called “Iran in the Philosophy of Hussein Houthi.” The Houthis do not like either America or the Jews. Street crowds routinely shout anti-American and anti-Semitic slogans, making the streets ring with shouts of “Allahu Akbar! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!”

In March 2015, Tehran announced an “air bridge” between Iran and Sanaa with a twice-daily shuttle service operated by Mahan Air, an Iranian airline used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to ferry trainers and equipment to war zones. Hundreds of Hezbollah operatives, as well as members of the Iranian military, have been transported from Yemen to Iran. In answer, Saudi Arabia and a Western-backed coalition of 10 Sunni Arab intervened against Houthi targets. The Saudi-led coalition, despite its superior air power, quickly got bogged down in a military stalemate that continues to this day.

After the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, Yemen became a key site for U.S. intelligence gathering and drone attacks on al Qaeda, which is regarded as “most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States.”

Last November, the United States said it was halting the aerial refueling of aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen. A month later, Congress adopted a resolution calling for the removal of American troops from Yemen. Last month, the Senate followed up with a vote to remove U.S. troops from Yemen within 30 days. The House adopted a similar resolution to suspend American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The White House, vowing a veto, says the resolution raises “serious constitutional concerns” and getting out would abandon Yemen to Iran.

The warring parties had signed a series of U.N.-sponsored agreements — known collectively as the Stockholm Agreement — moving 70 percent of food imports through Yemen’s main Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The Houthis pledged to withdraw from Hodeidah, and Saudi-led coalition forces promised to retreat from the outskirts of the city.

The troop withdrawals were intended to clear the way for wider negotiations to end the war. But the agreement is ambiguous; it does not, for example, stipulate who should control the port in Hodeidah after the Houthis withdraw. In January 2019, Houthi rebels used an Iranian-supplied drone to attack a government military parade at the Al Anad military base. Yemen’s chief of military intelligence and the deputy chief of staff died of wounds sustained in the attack.

Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi says he won’t allow Iran to establish a “Persian” state in Yemen. The U.N. panel of experts, however, has concluded that Yemen is not capable of preventing that. A crisis looms.

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