Thinking Through Action in Yemen

By Peter Henne

After the failed attempt to destroy an airliner by an al-Qaeda (AQ)-tied Nigerian man, President Barack Obama has faced vocal criticism by Republicans of his counterterrorism policy and calls for swift action in response. When it emerged that the perpetrator was connected to Yemen-based members of AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an AQ franchise, the crosshairs turned to this fragile country. Yet, this is more complicated than merely eliminating an AQ safe-haven, as a Shiite rebellion is raging in north Yemen, which has drawn in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. U.S. action is needed to deal with AQAP and resolve the Shiite rebellion, but policymakers must be careful to not exacerbate this already volatile situation.

Shiite rebels-known as the Houthi-have been waging a war against the Yemeni government in its northwestern Saada province for five years. The rebels accuse the government of neglecting Shiite interests in favor of the majority Sunni population. The uprising's regional significance, however, is the greatest threat. The Saada province borders Saudi Arabia; the Saudis have grown increasingly nervous of spillover, and conducted airstrikes on rebel positions. The country's own restive Shiite minority exacerbates Saudi fears. Likewise, the Shiite Iranian regime has come to the aid of its coreligionists in Yemen, criticizing Saudi Arabia for its actions against the rebels. Some have also accused Iran of supplying the rebels, but the veracity of these claims is unclear.

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Saudi Arabia and Iran have long had turbulent relations. They have been wary of each other since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, with Iran critical of the close Saudi-U.S. ties and Saudi Arabia concerned about a relatively large power so close to its territory. Religion is also an important part of the rivalry; both regimes base their rule on Islam, and consider themselves the champion of Muslims worldwide. The favor of regional and global Muslims is thus crucial for both regimes' stability, and they compete to be seen as the true defender of Islam, with the Saudi conservative Sunni Islam clashing with the revolutionary Shiism of Iran. This transnational religious component is intertwined with geopolitical tension, exacerbating the tensions.

The Shiite uprising in Northern Yemen epitomizes these dual pillars of the rivalry. Shiite rebels could cross into Saudi Arabia and destabilize its border regions, while inspiring protests among Saudi Shiites. Also, the failure to defend a Sunni state against Iranian-tied Shiite forces could undermine Saudi religious legitimacy. In terms of Iran, the violent suppression of Yemeni Shiites and Iran's failure to protect them could inflame the country's already volatile domestic opposition.

Moreover, this conflict-and a potential U.S. intervention-has a historical precedent in the 1960s Yemeni Civil War. In 1962, the Saudi-backed royalty was overthrown by republican forces, who soon gained the support of Egypt. The Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, aspired to be seen as the champion of the pan-Arab cause, an aspiration that often led him to criticize the conservative U.S.-tied Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni conflict soon developed into a proxy for the Saudi-Egyptian rivalry, with Saudi Arabia calling on its U.S. ally for help. The United States deftly provided minimal military support to Saudi Arabia, in return for the cessation of Saudi aid to the royalists; the United States then convinced Nasser to remove Egyptian troops.

U.S. policymakers must be equally careful and creative in this case. While the United States is unlikely to become directly involved in actions against the Shiite rebels, attempts to improve Yemeni military capabilities will aid the government's efforts, and may be perceived as U.S. interference. Moreover, both Yemen and Saudi Arabia may leverage counterterrorism cooperation with the United States for U.S. assistance with the rebels, further involving the United States. President Obama thus faces yet another seemingly intractable situation in his less than a year in office.

Political pressure to either increase support to the Yemeni government or intervene in the country in pursuit of AQ will increase, especially as 2010 midterm elections near. Any U.S. efforts, however, must take into account the effects they may have on Saudi-Iranian tensions. The best course will be the one Obama so often attempts to take; careful, smart diplomacy, such as that conducted by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations in the 1960s Yemeni civil war. Calls for quick action may be popular politically, but President Obama's critics must realize the complexity of this situation, and allow for a measured and intelligent response.

Peter Henne is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University and a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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