Yemen talks a defining moment for U.S.-Iran ties

M.K. Bhadrakumar April 22, 2015 2:13 AM (UTC+8)
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The first disclosure regarding Saudi Arabia’s impending announcement on the termination of its air strikes on Yemen didn’t come from Riyadh. It came from Tehran. The Saudi Ministry of Defence formally made its statement a few hours later. (FARS news agency). Clearly, intense consultations preceded the announcement and Iran was not only in the loop but had positioned itself in a key role.

No doubt, consultations involving the United States and Iran preceded the Saudi decision. President Barack Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. was in touch with Iran, sending “very direct messages” to Tehran not to do anything that might threaten shipping traffic in the region. Obviously, the consultations couldn’t have been restricted to freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aden.

Again, the call by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in the weekend for an immediate ceasefire certainly played its part, and it could, perhaps, be understood as a parallel effort in coordination with the US-Iranian consultations. Curiously, the GCC ambassadors in New York didn’t even realize how rapidly the ground was shifting when just a day back they had “rejected” Ban’s call. Which means the Iranians operated at a high political level.

It will be recalled that President Barack Obama Obama spoke with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and with the Crown Prince of the UAE over the weekend. The Saudis ultimately sensed that the law of diminishing returns would be at work if the operations had continued.

The Saudi rethink could have been anticipated. (See my blog A Saudi rethink on Yemen is possible.) Apart from the international isolation that the Saudis increasingly faced, the fact that the military operation was not really achieving anything, while the latent “anti-Saudi” sentiment among the Yemenis was rearing its head following the wanton air attacks put the Saudi leadership on the defensive.

Finally, the highly nuanced stance taken by the U.S. – notionally supportive of the Saudi military operation but publicizing through media leaks its deep skepticism about the wisdom of foreign military intervention as such in Yemen’s civil war — would have sapped the Saudi morale (and, more so that of the “coalition” partners such as Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, et al.)

In retrospect, Obama handled the Yemen crisis as best as he could, given the range of compulsions, including contrarian compulsions, working on the policy calculus – fight against the al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Saudi intervention tilting the balance of forces within Yemen to al-Qaeda’s advantage; importance of backing the Saudi ally’s first real war in modern history but the sense of futility over it; criticality of preserving the US-Saudi ties while severely restricting the US support to logistical and intelligence inputs only; unimpeded flow of oil; navigating the sensitive phase of the Iran nuclear talks while Iran-Saudi relations neared freezing point; rightwing criticism within the US itself.

What lies ahead? Indeed, there is no alternative but to negotiate under UN auspices a broad-based national unity government in Yemen. But reinstating Abd Rabbuh Manur Hadi, the Saudi proxy, as president seems difficult. Hadi has become a “burnt-out case” and deserves a richly earned retirement life enjoying Saudi hospitality.

The Houthis will insist on due accommodation in a future power structure and they have displayed both militarily and in terms of political cohesion that no other entity within Yemen can match them. This is where the US would have use for Iran’s moderating influence.

Washington should follow up on Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif’s proposal to discuss Yemen issue as the first step toward building a regional dialogue in the Persian Gulf. The point is, Yemen is not a “stand-alone” issue. It brings together almost the entire range of sub-plots that surged in the past 4-5 years since Arab Spring arrived in Tunisia.

As I noted in an earlier piece titled Is Iran capable of rethink on Israel?, Zarif has made a major foreign-policy overture to the US about addressing the root causes of the Middle East crisis. Iran is flagging, in essence, an exit strategy for the US out of what could well turn out to be a Middle East quagmire.

Iran is an ambitious regional power, which is intensely conscious of its global status and its capacity to play a role on the world stage. It is not willing to be tied down to its region by irritants like Israel or Saudi Arabia. Quite obviously, while Iran could be a maniacal obsession for Israel, the leadership in Tehran seldom wastes breath on Israel. Equally, Iran’s vast resources (and social formation) added together by far exceed the wealth and potential of Saudi Arabia, which possesses only limited (or non-existent) scientific, technological or industrial base.

As the discussions over a political settlement in Yemen advance, the US is bound to work closely with Iran. The negotiations could turn out to be defining moment for the future development of US-Iranian relations. If the original Saudi intention was to throw a Yemeni wrench at the US-Iran talks and somehow derail the nuclear deal, Salman certainly miscalculated. And the view from Tehran that he made a “strategic mistake” sums it up.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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