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In Yemen, Iran Inherits Another Sinking Ship

By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

Yesterday, Iranian-linked rebels were reported as enforcing violent control of the capital of Yemen, attacking protestors to their rule. The violence triggered Washington to abandon its embassy in Sanaa. Britain and France followed suit, exiting the country of a diplomatic presence.

In 2013, the embassy had already been reduced to essential staff only prior to abandoning it yesterday, but, in theory, no U.S. soldier should ever relinquish a side-arm to a foreign power, short of surrender. According to Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, this is what they did. The practice of U.S. Marines turning over hand guns to Yemeni officials at the airport to board commercial flights seems wholly unacceptable. Larger weapons were destroyed, but the vehicles were not and at least 20 were taken by Houthi rebels.

US Embassy evacuated in Yemen
Yemeni capital city of Sana’a

The fact that all American diplomatic personal were not securely flown out from the embassy via helicopters underlies the lack of urgency in the evacuation as more of a precautionary measure. Apparently, the deteriorating security conditions in Yemen were not bad enough for emergency evacuation via air transport; essential staff was driven under the protection of security and military personnel until the airport, at which time, their protection could no longer be guaranteed by U.S. Marines. At that point, the trust was placed on the sheer loyalties of the Yemeni airport security officials before disembarking on commercial airlines.

The real reason for a Western exodus however, has been suggested as a punishment of isolation against the Houthis for their failure to compromise politically. But in an interview, a key representative for the Houthis, Saleh Ali al-Sammad, said that he wanted to share power and not dominate, according to The New York Times. In fact, Sammad reached out to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to stay hours before the closers.

In what appears to be a concerted effort, Saudi Arabia withdrew its $4 billion support line and took Yemen off its donor list last year. Germany closed its embassy, the U.S., France and Britain left and Germany was reported to have closed its embassy but remained. The response seems so delayed to the realities of the ground, where it was reported as more violent two weeks ago than today, according to The New York Times. Moreover, the timing seems out-of-touch with last year’s coup. Why did the U.S. fail to fully acknowledge the ramifications of the coup or take the present course of actions then?

An isolation strategy is hardly explicative. More likely, the truth is just that—the West was unwilling to work with the Houthis and without the $4 billion from the Saudis and massive petro-economic woes as well as sectarian warfare, Yemen is a sinking ship. The exodus appears more out of prevention than strategy.

The Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis had been coercing the previous governments of Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa late last year and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who resigned last month in virtual protest with all his ministers.

Yemen’s parliament was dissolved Feb. 6 and replaced by a ruling council of the Houthis. Previously, the security forces were ordered not to engage the rebels that turned from street gradual street protests into militancy against discrimination, political resignations, the economy and so forth.

Until the retreat from Yemen, the West was in a political power struggle with the Houthis, operating as a proxy rebel force in connection with Tehran, and fighting al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula at the same time. The Western uncertainty to the Iranian challenge appears to be a dillydally of sorts that was compounded by its inability to play an acceptable negotiation or mediation role.

The previous government was Western- and Saudi-backed. Therein lays the problem. After a show of arms and guile and ambiguity, Washington found itself in the weakest political position for any political meditation between Iran and the Saudis.

Lesson to be learned: America cannot take on an effective and powerful mediation role in the Middle East and at the same time pick out favorites. Washington should take a sublime position of power rather than piggy-backing on or behind allies and taking sides of a few players. The faulty lesson to be learned here will be that Iran is problematic while Saudi Arabia is not. A reevaluation of purpose and allies is necessary.

The Iranian power moves in Yemen may be a reactive twitch against the West after two largely important events:

1) The death of the Saudi Arabian King Abdullah and the large American delegation and presidential visit attending the funeral. This demonstrated a continuing and unwavering solidarity with the new monarch, King Salman and was meant to demonstrate a unity with Sunni and Arabs; especially, in the fight against ISIS. However, such visibly close ties threaten any progress in any future U.S.-Iranian relations and the nuclear talks.

2) The scheduled visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railroads Tehran’s attempts to woe Washington with cooler heads in newer leadership positions and diplomacy. Even though the president and vice president have both refused to see Prime Minister Netanyahu, Tehran sees a larger threat with a Republican Congress that is largely oppositional to the president’s Iranian policy. The invitation for Israel to bypass the president is taken as a substantial threat to which the Iranians respond with solidifying the Houthi transition, where thousands of rebels in the streets shouted: “Death to America, Death to Israel.”

The loss of Yemen does deny the Iranians a position of power. Nevertheless, Yemen marks at least three (Benghazi, Tripoli, Yemen) and virtually five (Afghanistan plus Iraq) Middle East U.S. diplomatic evacuations—the bulk of which marks the eroding political presence of the U.S. Obviously, this implies that Americans can no longer affect change through normal diplomatic channels and a symbolic presence and strength.

At least with Yemen, the Americans might return sooner, but without the missing billions of dollars of aid by the Saudis, America would just be re-entering another Iranian sinking ship, like Syria.

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the preceding article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.

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