The increasing complexity of U.S. Middle East policy was on full view this week as Washington provided support for the Saudi-led military intervention against Iran's allies in Yemen; bombed positions in the Iraqi city of Tikrit in support of an Iran-led ground offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); and intensified negotiations with Tehran over a possible nuclear accord.
“Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war," wrote Robert Malley in the fall of 2012, about rapidly changing Middle East power dynamics. "The picture is blurred. Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting.”
Fast-forward three years, and Malley was sitting alongside Secretary of State John Kerry at Thursday's talks with Iranian officials in Switzerland — now as the Obama administration’s point person for the Middle East — where he is trying to navigate the shifting tectonic plates of the Mideast power structure that his writing described.
Even as the U.S. provided logistical — although not combat — support to the Saudi-led coalition of Arab powers mounting an air campaign to stop advances by Yemen's pro-Iran Houthis, Iran denounced the intervention as “aggression” and “a dangerous step.” But negotiations between Washington and Tehran's top diplomats in the resort town of Lausanne remained insulated from differences over Yemen. A U.S. official said the Yemen conflict would have “no impact” on negotiations, while Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani phoned world leaders amid the simmering military conflict to press for the imperative of reaching a nuclear deal.
Still, the escalation in Yemen represents a rapid heating up of the longstanding regional cold war between a Saudi-led Sunni bloc and Iran and its Shia allies. And U.S. backing for the Saudi side is a reminder that an accord on an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief does not necessarily resolve the wider strategic rivalry between Washington and Tehran.
But the campaign against ISIL represents a wildcard that potentially confounds traditional strategic calculations in the region.
When he announced the first U.S. airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq last September, President Barack Obama cited Yemen as a model for success. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen … for years," he said.
But the flaws of that model have been revealed by the collapse of the designated U.S. partner: the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Weeks after Obama hailed Yemen as a model of U.S. counter-terrorism policy, the Houthi rebels now being targeted by the U.S.-supported and Saudi-led air campaign took charge of Yemen’s capital. While they opposed Hadi and were supported by Iran, the predominantly Shia Houthis are mortal enemies of Al-Qaeda, principal target of the U.S. counter-terrorism policy in Yemen.
In the intervening six months the Houthis consolidated their power and began marching south, forcing Hadi to first decamp to Aden and then, Thursday, to flee to Saudi Arabia, which wants to restore him to power.
While the overriding U.S. priority in Yemen has been to defeat Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Saudi Arabia and others have viewed the advance of the Iranian-allied Houthis with alarm, seeing it as a further extension of the Iranian influence, which is growing in Iraq, and which remains central in Lebanon and Syria. And Riyadh has made no secret of its frustration with Washington in the face of both the Iranian challenge and the surge of support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Sunni Arab countries where dictators had been ousted.
Saudi Arabia has “for more than 15 years, arguably before 9/11, felt the U.S. has been peeling back its commitment to protecting Saudi security,” said Toby C. Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University. “All of that has been intensified by [what the Saudis perceive as] American intransigence in Syria, working with Iran in Iraq to confront ISIL, and working with Iran on a nuclear agreement.”
That fear shared by other members of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, who are independently adopting increasingly assertive foreign policies in the region independent of the U.S. Egypt has even argued for the creation of region-wide Sunni Arab military force, a proposal that may be discussed when Arab leaders meet in Egypt this weekend.
In Yemen itself, the existence and extent of any Iran’s military support for the Houthis remains unclear.
“Whether its true or not, whatever the extent of Iranian involvement, it is widely believed in Saudi that it is the case,” said Jones. “Often that matters more than facts on the ground.”
Iran insists it won't respond militarily to the bombardment of Yemen, making any direct confrontation between the region's major powers unlikely.
Backing the military campaign in Yemen does risk tethering the U.S. to policies of countries that see the region in largely sectarian terms, something the Obama administration itself has blamed for much of the region’s instability. But the same could be argued for the U.S. airstrikes on ISIL in Iraq, which effectively support a ground campaign in which sectarian Shia militias are the dominant force.
As the International Crisis Group said in a assessment on Thursday of the ongoing policies of outside actors in Iraq: “What progress is being made against jihadi insurgents [ISIL] occupying large swathes of north-western Iraq is simultaneously undermining what is left of a state whose frailty and malfunctions created the environment in which jihadism was able to surge in the first place.”
And just as ISIL has prospered in Iraq by taking advantage of the sectarian alienation of the Sunni population from the government in Baghdad, so are the Houthis an expression of Yemenis, Shia and Sunni alike, who feel marginalized by the previous governments in Sanaa.
The Saudi-led campaign, wrote Adam Barron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, risks “further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.”
Meanwhile in Yemen – not unlike in Syria, Iraq, or Libya, where the U.S. and other countries have intervened in support of local partners – groups like AQAP continue to exploit the country’s political dysfunction for its own ends.
U.S. policy is currently focused on achievable goals such as an accord to limit Iran's nuclear work and rolling back ISIL, and Washington is looking to regional powers to take the lead on managing turbulence on their own doorstep. The overlapping of strategic interests and the convoluted sectarian picture, however, mean that a long-term policy horizon is still taking shape.
“These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination,” wrote Malley in 2012, of a picture that is just as shrouded in confusion today.
With additional reporting by Michael Pizzi.