Does an end to US support for Yemen war help Iran?

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said the US will announce an end of support for offensive operations in Yemen.

A Houthi supporter looks on as he carries a weapon during a gathering in Sanaa, Yemen April 2, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI)
A Houthi supporter looks on as he carries a weapon during a gathering in Sanaa, Yemen April 2, 2020
Two weeks ago, an article in Newsweek alleged that Iran had positioned “suicide drones” in Yemen. Ostensibly juicy satellite photos showed a triangular shape, or maybe a blob, that was supposed to be an “Iranian Shahed-136,” a drone no one had ever heard of before.
The news broke as the Biden team was packing its suitcases to move into the White House and key Biden administration appointments were being vetted and put forward. On the top of the list of changes in US foreign policy: A review of drone and aircraft sales to the United Arab Emirates and an end to support for Saudi Arabia’s “offensive” operations in Yemen.
Now, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said the US will announce an end of support for offensive operations in Yemen. How much does this matter? Will Iran, which backs the Houthis, believe it has won in Yemen? Could this lead to destabilization, or will it help Yemen recover?
To understand how we got here, we need to go back to 2015. In that year, the Houthi rebels and former Yemen leader, Ali Saleh, threatened to take the key port of Aden. Saudi Arabia intervened, leading a group of countries, including the UAE, to stop the Houthi takeover. Iran was also involved in supporting the Houthis. Soon, the war took on new dimensions with the Houthis pushed back into the mountains and Iran began shipping new drone and missile technology to the Houthis.
In 2016, anti-ship missiles were fired at a Saudi ship in the Red Sea and by December 2017, the Houthis were targeting Riyadh with ballistic missiles. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley displayed a ballistic missile that Iran had supplied to Yemen in December 2017.
As the conflict took on larger proportions, the Trump administration was beginning to back Saudi Arabia more. US drones overflew Yemen and the US supported Saudi Arabia’s air defenses.
Trump pushed Saudi to buy billions of US military items. He also went to Saudi Arabia for a major Islamic and Arab confab. Shortly after that, Saudi Arabia broke ties with Qatar alongside Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE, key allies of Riyadh.
Qatar, using its powerful media arm and influence in the West, slammed Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen in 2018 and 2019 and soon after, in 2020, reports emerged accusing Qatar of involvement in supporting the Houthis. Iran increasingly sent drone experts to Houthi-controlled areas to help them with missiles, air defense and drones. Drones, such as the Qasef loitering munition, plagued Saudi Arabia in 2019.
By the fall of 2020 calculations had changed. The Houthis were still targeting Riyadh, but at a reduced rate. The UAE, after various ventures in Yemen and dealing with separatists in Aden, had reduced its role. Saudi Arabia and Qatar patched things up in January. The incoming Biden administration likely played a role in this calculus.
Saudi Arabia knew that many of those close to Biden were its critics. The US break with Saudi Arabia is interesting because only a decade ago, US officials and legacy media were all in lockstep support for Riyadh. The Qatar crisis led to a major chasm opening as Qatar fueled anti-Saudi reports and particularly targeted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Crown Prince had risen in prominence in 2015 and he was linked to various issues that sparked controversy. Saudi Arabia, for instance, was accused of rounding up corrupt officials who had contacts in the West in 2017, getting Saad Hariri to resign during a sojourn in Riyadh in November 2017, and accused of killing form insider Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. The Yemen war was just one more avenue for criticism.
Now that the US is indicating an end to support for offensive operations, it is clear that Saudi Arabia would have seen this coming. Riyadh knows that the US was going to review its support.
The US still will back Saudi Arabia defending itself against Iranian-backed drone and missile attacks. Having ended the Qatar crisis, Saudi Arabia can also focus on shoring up its defenses and public image in relation to Yemen but it’s not clear what Riyadh hopes to accomplish in the long run. Is it a divided Yemen, or a deal to end hostilities? Will Iran be brought to the peace table?
In late December, it appeared that an Iranian-backed rocket strike by Houthis targeted Aden airport where Yemen leader Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was located. This was a message to Riyadh that the Houthis can strike anywhere.
Yemen has been divided for much of the last century. Its recent rifts, therefore, are not unique. There used to be North and South Yemen, the royalist forces, backed by Saudi and also the Nasser regime in Egypt backing its pro-Republic forces. Poison gas was used in 1963. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s army was probably weakened in 1967 when it went up against Israel because of its Vietnam-like involvement in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement, therefore, is not something new. It is part of history. Yemen also has a troubling past with extremism. Men like Anwar Awlaki were based in Yemen and the US has used drone strikes to take out extremists there for almost two decades. The USS Cole was bombed off the coast of Yemen in October 2000.
This frames the reality of US and Saudi involvement and Iran’s role. That the US will end support for Riyadh’s offensive operations is a new chapter in the conflict. It may signal to Iran that Tehran has an advantage now. Tehran has used Yemen as a proving ground for advanced weapons with many of which it would like to target Israel. IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by the US under the Trump administration, was involved in Yemen too. He may have ordered the murder of Abdullah Saleh in 2017.
Ultimately though, much remains a mystery about whether Iran could use Yemen to target Israel. The stories of a new drone and other weapons being trafficked are important. It is believed that there were rising threats in 2019 during the same years that Iran moved ballistic missiles to Iraq.
Iran has also spread conspiracies about Israeli links to the UAE involving Yemen, including Iran’s Press TV accusing Israel of “stealing” resources from an island called Socotra off the coast. Like many things in Yemen, these stories are more rumor than reality and are used to discredit various governments through the prism of the Yemen war.