op-ed

OPINION: Proxy Conflict Between Iran & Saudi Arabia — The Backdrop of Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis

Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies

There is a growing effort in Congress to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led Gulf coalition fighting to reinstall Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which was forced into exile when rebel Houthi tribesmen seized the capital in 2015.

The movement has also been given impetus by an errant coalition airstrike that hit a bus filled with school children, and now it is being further strengthened by the death of an anti-government Saudi journalist living in Turkey apparently at the hands of Saudi interrogators.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Indiana Republican Sen. Todd Young and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen had previously sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo on Oct. 10 stating that they have “significant concerns” about the administration’s support of the Gulf coalition, supposedly over the objections by State Department Yemen “experts.”

Additionally, other members of Congress, including the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and celebrities in the entertainment industry and academia, are also pushing for the United States to end its military intelligence and targeting assistance.

These politicians and celebrities are also calling on the U.S. government to end existing or further weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the operative partners in the Gulf coalition fighting in Yemen and pushing back on Iranian “mayhem.”

Although the tragedy in Yemen is largely the result of an Iran-sponsored rebellion in Yemen, it is now being described by the U.N. as the “greatest humanitarian crisis in the world,” with the United States even being charged an enabler of a coalition that willfully bombs civilians.

But the advocates promoting this view ignore several inconvenient facts.

First, the Gulf coalition is allied with the internationally recognized government of Yemen and seeks only to reinstate it. Opposing them are Houthi rebel terrorists supported by Iranian money, logistics and weapons, including increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles and mines.

Second, the elected government of Yemen and its allies have regained 3/4 of Yemen territory and are on the verge of recapturing Hodeidah, the country’s major seaport through which Iran supplies weapons to the Houthi. That recapture could happen soon  and if successful it will mark the beginning of the end of the Houthi rebellion, and hopefully with it the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

The most embarrassing fact missing from the anti-coalition narrative is the nature, means and objectives of the Iran-Houthi alliance. Since 2004 the Houthi — in their own words — are dedicated to the killing of apostate Muslims, Jews and Americans.

The Houthi way of war includes kidnapping children and forcing them into the battlefield. Some of them are only eight or nine years old. The Houthis throw sick civilians out of hospitals or deny such civilians entry, and only care for their injured fighters. They empty hospitals and schools, using—them as weapons depots and military training centers, and then complain when such weapons facilities — now legitimate military targets – are hit by coalition airstrikes.

Houthis and their Iranian Hezbollah trainers also widely use anti-personnel mines, mortars and other munitions that indiscriminately kill civilians. They have crossed the northern border to seize and occupy Saudi territory, and they have launched at least 191 ballistic missiles at Saudi towns and cities.

But why should all this concern Americans? The answer is that the Houthi-Iran axis poses a threat to the global energy supply that if interrupted could trigger a serious U.S. recession, giving Al Qaeda/Houthi and other terrorism great leverage over our economy.

The energy issue is one that most commentators ignore because of their misunderstanding of energy economics. It is true that Yemen is a long way from the United States, but if Iran-supplied ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis hit Ras Tanura or King Fahd, key Saudi oil facilities on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, up to 13 million barrels of oil a day would be lost on world markets, equivalent to 14 percent of all oil consumed daily in the world.

Conventional wisdom says the United States is immune from oil “price shocks” because we have dramatically increased our oil and gas production to 12 million barrels a day, up from as low as 5 million barrels a day in the previous decade. But even though the United States is now the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, production of 12 million barrels a day does not extinguish our demand of close to 18-20 million barrels a day.

Although no longer dependent upon OPEC, we are still inextricably linked to the global oil market. And as we have seen, spikes in global oil prices have inevitably caused price surges in the United States that have preceded every U.S. recession in the past 43 years.

No one needs reminding of the trillions of dollars those recessions cost the United States economy, or that oil spiked to $146 a barrel on July 4th, just as the 2008 recession loomed.

If the Houthis control Yemen, then their Iranian patrons will control the Bab el-Mandab strait leading to the Suez Canal, through which oil and commerce moves to southern Europe. Of course, the grand prize for Iran is control of the entire Saudi Arabian Peninsula and with it the control of more than 70 percent of the world’s conventional hydrocarbons.

With the untold energy wealth such control would provide, Tehran could build the world’s most horrible weapons, and then coerce the industrialized world to do its bidding. We have seen what Iran and its proxies have done to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued threats to Israel and American forces in the region.

And we have endured Iranian terror attacks against our Marines in Lebanon, our USAF personnel in Khobar Towers, and our citizens on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. Do we want to gamble that Yemen under Iranian control will be any different?

Then there is the question of a resurgence of Al Qaeda terrorism. Decoyed by the media, critics of the Gulf coalition are also ignoring the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or, as they are popularly called, AQAP. 

In 2018, the State Department estimated the number of AQAP fighters in Yemen to be in the “low thousands,” though the United Nations put the number of AQAP fighters at 6,000–7,000.  

In 2016 and 2017, AQAP claimed to have mounted more than 200 attacks, a major increase from its early years when Yemen was relatively stable. AQAP, as well as the Houthis, are therefore a significant part of the battle in Yemen, as well as being an international terrorist organization.

For some time, the rise of the Islamic State lured many fighters away from joining AQAP, but the last two years have seen IS dwindle and AQAP grow.

Besides seeking to defeat the Houthi, the Gulf coalition is fighting AQAP in order to deny it a sanctuary in Yemen from which to plot and mount terrorist attacks against the West. Without U.S. military assistance that essential fight will wither, and as AQAP continues to grow it will resurrect its terrorist activities and become a major global threat again.

The letter sent to Pompeo was signed by four Democrats and three Republicans, and included Sens. Susan Collins, Chris Murphy, Jerry Moran, Jeff Merkley and Chris Coons.

Bottom line: Whatever they ultimately do, the senators and their staffs should keep in mind that the government of Iran can end the Yemen civil war quite quickly — with just a phone call.

Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.