After the United Nations Security Council voted 14-0 last week to impose an arms embargo on Yemen to prevent Iranian resupply of the Shiite forces that had overrun the capital and much of the country, the US sent a pair of warships to the Gulf of Aden to enforce the restriction and provide support to Arab countries in their anti-Houthi operations.
The nine-ship Iranian convoy positioned itself outside the blockade earlier this week, where it was shadowed by the American ships and flown over by jets launched from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. The Pentagon has since reported that the Iranian ships are carrying weapons that are “bigger than small arms.” But these weapons will not be reaching Yemen immediately and not by the intended route. The ships carrying them have relented in their brief naval standoff with the US and Saudi Arabia.
This comes soon after Saudi Arabia announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm, the coalition bombing campaign against Houthi targets. But neither of these developments indicate that the crisis surrounding that country is over – a fact that was acknowledged on Wednesday by White House spokesperson Jen Psaki when she was questioned by CNN host Alisyn Camerota.
The Blaze quotes Psaki as saying, “Obviously, the job is not done. There is remaining instability in the region in Yemen. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and we’re going to be doubling down and continuing to work on that with our partners around the world.”
In halting Operation Decisive Storm, Saudi Arabia claimed that each of its main objectives had been completed, including prevention of a Houthi takeover and neutralization of the Houthi military. But less than a day after ending the operation Saudi Arabia was back to bombing the Houthis in response to continued aggressive moves by the Iran-backed militia. Fox News indicates that the group has now begun to push south from the capital of Sanaa toward the port city of Aden.
Although the Obama administration is narrowly focused on resolving the local situation in Yemen, for the Saudis and some of their regional partners this conflict is seen as part of a larger confrontation with Iran over its attempts to pursue regional hegemony. Iran generally denies foreign characterizations of the extent of its ambitions, even going so far as to deny the generally agreed upon fact that it is backing and supplying the Houthis.
But even Iran’s Payvand News acknowledges that Iran is directly involved in a number of regional conflicts and that its leadership believes that Iran can and should be the leader of the Islamic world. Contrary to the regime’s claims that it is playing a merely advisory role in Iraq, Payvand notes that that nation’s Popular Mobilization forces are mainly led by Iranian military commanders.
Payvand indicates that the victories of those forces in Iran buttress the regime’s claim that “all roads lead to Tehran” while also deepening the declared linkages between Tehran and Baghdad, which have led some Iranian officials’ to claim that the two neighboring countries are increasingly becoming as one.
But the Payvand article also points out that there are both threats and opportunities facing Iran’s pursuit of Middle Eastern hegemony. On the one hand, Iranian influence stokes sectarian conflict by setting its own Shiite forces against Sunni alternatives – Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Iran’s reliance on local proxies tends to strengthen that influence by exploiting existing support structures.
This analysis of Iran’s influence could potentially provide guidelines either for Iran’s own extension of its influence or for its adversaries’ contravention of that influence. The article contrasts past US mistakes in the region with recent Iranian successes, claiming that the US had failed to form strong partnerships. As it is, the potential for such partnerships certainly exists in the form of a significant domestic resistance to the Iranian regime and a strong and growing Arab aversion to the regime’s activities across the Middle East.
An editorial in Newsweek by Council on Foreign Relations military fellow Clint Hinote suggests that some Western analysts have similar aversions and are concerned that Iran’s regional power is growing to new and more dangerous proportions. The essay focuses on Russia’s recent plans to deliver an advanced S-300 missile defense system to Iran. The completion of this sale – originally arranged in 2007 and shelved in the midst of international outcry – would represent an upsetting of the balance of power in the region, according to Hinote.
The Newsweek article takes care to point that the US would still be able to effectively penetrate the defenses provided by that weapons system, but it says that doing so would add a great deal of cost and danger to any operation deemed necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or from pursuing other policies that could further destabilize the region and threaten US security.
Fortunately for those who follow Hinote’s line of thinking, the current suite of Arab and American opposition to Iranian activities appears to be having an at least short term effect on constraining the would-be growth of Iranian power. The Jewish Press reported on Thursday that Russia had apparently reacted to continued international pressure by again backing down on its plans to deliver the S-300 weapons system” for the foreseeable future.