Why it may suit Iran to let the Saudis win in Yemen

Analysis: For outside powers, the Yemen crisis is part of a balancing act with the nuclear deal at its heart

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
President, US/Middle East Project

It may appear confusing at first glance that the U.S. is supporting a Saudi-led military intervention against Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen while waging its own air campaign in support of Iran’s allies fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Tikrit, Iraq — and negotiating a nuclear accord with Tehran. But there’s a coherent strategic thread linking these three seemingly disparate processes.

Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and has traditionally loomed large in its national security thinking. The recent evisceration of Saudi allies in Sanaa suggest Riyadh took its eye off the ball, but Saudi success in establishing a broad coalition to fight the Houthi takeover in Yemen represents a feather in the cap of the new ruler, King Salman. By persuading states such as Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE to join forces in what they see as a bid to aggressively roll back Iranian influence, Salman has transcended the divisions among Sunni Muslim powers over the Muslim Brotherhood. The Yemen intervention reflects Riyadh’s success in prioritizing the confrontation against Iran, and it is through this lens that the battle in Yemen is now being seen.

For the Saudi-led alliance to win in Yemen entails reinstalling Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president, rolling back Houthi military gains and forming a governing alliance in which the Houthi were at most a distinctly junior partner. Achieving such an outcome could make the Saudi leadership less skittish in its overall regional contest with Iran, which it has been perceived as losing.

Strong backing for the Saudi-led effort in Yemen allows Barack Obama’s administration to dispel the notion — widely (albeit mistakenly) held in Arab capitals and by some critics in Congress and the U.S. foreign policy establishment — that nuclear diplomacy presages a broader U.S. realignment in favor of Iran and at the expense of traditional U.S. allies in the Gulf.

This is an extract from an article that was first published by AlJazeera. To read the full article, click here.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
President, US/Middle East Project