As the U.S. consolidated assistance Wednesday to Iran’s campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq, it also provided support to a Saudi effort to oust the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group vying for power in Yemen.
These two contradictory moves took place while American negotiators in Switzerland tried to reach an interim agreement with Iran over the country’s civilian nuclear program.
The latest moves reflect a fractured American policy in the Middle East, attempting to strengthen pragmatic alliances with regional players whose interests are sometimes at odds.
Saudi Arabia gathered troops on its border with Yemen Wednesday, before executing a series of airstrikes on Thursday in an operation whose Arabic name is being translated “Resolute Storm.” The attacks intend to displace the Houthis, an Iranian-backed rebel group that controls large parts of the country, including the capital Sanaa, and whose takeover forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country Wednesday. The Houthis are also engaged in an ongoing struggle against core al-Qaida leaders in the country.
Alongside Saudi Arabia, coalition members include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. Other countries expressing interest in the campaign include Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan and far-off Pakistan, according to Al Jazeera.
The National Security Council confirmed late Wednesday that President Barack Obama “has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led coalition, “establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”
For its part, Iran has condemned the bombings, saying that they will only provoke more innocent deaths in the country. Initial reports have indicated dozens of initial civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, the U.S. began engaging Wednesday in airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Tikrit, a key Iraqi city halfway between Baghdad, the capital, and Mosul, the country’s biggest IS-held territory. The strikes support Iraqi forces — dominated by Iran-backed militias — which have recently stalled in their fight against the jihadis.
The Washington Post reported that American military planes “have stayed away from the area until now to avoid appearing to be aiding the Iranian-backed forces,” though “the battlefield stasis in Tikrit apparently forced a change of heart.”
U.S. government representatives have denied that American forces are coordinating in any way with Iran. But some, including at least one Iraqi mayor, have speculated that Iran’s long-term stakes in Iraq’s government make it a threat to U.S. interests in the region even after Islamic State fighters are expelled from the country, even perhaps engaging in direct attacks on America’s military presence in Iraq.
Against this chaotic backdrop, the United States continues to limit the subjects of its negotiations with Iran to the country’s nuclear program and related US sanctions. The Associated Press reported Thursday that a current draft agreement may include provisions for Iran to maintain a previously-secret enrichment facility, in exchange for limits on the scale and nature of other enrichment activities.
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