by Kevin L. Schwartz
If both the United States and Iran wish to escape the cycle of provocation and escalation in which they currently find themselves, they should begin by ending their involvement in the war they are already fighting in Yemen. Terminating involvement in what started as a local revolt and turned into a proxy war, in which each country sponsors an opposing belligerent, would demonstrate a mutual desire to back away from the prospect of direct armed confrontation. It is also the right thing to do, given the instability, destruction, and loss of human life the war has caused in the Middle East’s most fragile country.
The United States and Iran can end support for their proxies in Yemen—Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, respectively—and afford themselves a face-saving off-ramp from direct confrontation while also disengaging from an arena of ongoing miscalculation, mistrust, and ill-informed escalations. There would be several benefits to doing so.
First, the perpetuation of conflict in Yemen serves not to further either country’s security interests or improve its international standing, but in actuality undermines both. Yemen’s war-torn environment has proven a hospitable climate for Al-Qaeda and other jihadist factions, posing an acute security threat to both countries. The United States and Iran have exposed themselves to liability for war crimes carried out by the belligerents they sponsor, according to a recent UN finding, whether it be indiscriminate Saudi bombing or the Houthis’ imprisonment and torture of civilians. Moreover, both elected representatives and ordinary citizens in both Iran and the U.S., find their country’s involvement in the war deeply problematic, misguided, and costly. From security, credibility, and domestic standpoints, the United States and Iran stand to benefit more from ending the war than perpetuating it.
Second, by disavowing support for their proxies in Yemen, both the United States and Iran can counter arguments about each other’s confrontational regional behavior. For Iran, this means that the United States offers unwavering support to its regional allies in order to confront Iran at all costs; for the United States, that Iran maintains unflinching support for regional proxies opposing U.S. allies and interests at every turn. The war has provided both countries ample propaganda to claim proof of each other’s aspirations for regional hegemony and harden views against the other, thereby bolstering the case for continued pointless rivalry. Since U.S. and Iranian involvement in Yemen is predicated on each country’s suspicion of the other’s general regional motives and maneuverings, agreeing to disengage from Yemen would facilitate more nuanced reassessments of the other’s actions and would tone down the justifications for continued hardline responses being uttered by each country’s leaders.
Third, ending the Yemeni war would demonstrate to the international community and Yemeni people that their lives and sovereignty will no longer be taken for granted. The war is in its fifth year and has created the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. It is long past time for all parties in the conflict to work for the political and economic security of Yemen’s population rather than against it. The Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels are only able to sustain the conflict through U.S. and Iranian arms transfers and other means of assistance. Eradicating this support would increase the potential for reaching a negotiated settlement that can begin to ease the suffering.
Finally, the war Yemen is the central arena wherein the United States and Iran are engaged in regular, indirect confrontation, risking missteps and miscalculations that could spiral into direct war. Following the signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), the Obama administration sought to placate their Gulf allies’ uneasiness about regional security and their relationship with the United States and declined to impose any restraint on the Saudi and UAE-led bombing of Yemen. Providing few, if any, obstacles to their brutal aerial assault—and indeed facilitating it—was a miscalculation that opened the floodgates to Iranian engagement. As the coalition’s bombing campaign proceeded, Iranian support to the Houthis, which had previously been minimal and inconsistent at best, expanded and took on added strategic importance.
President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal has provoked more dramatic retaliatory Iranian aggression across the Middle East, but it is in Yemen where the mutual suspicion of the U.S.-Iran relationship has the greatest potential for mutual miscalculation. There is a real risk that in this time of “maximum pressure” and heightened tensions, Yemen could be the flashpoint that ignites a direct U.S.-Iran confrontation. Indeed, if the Houthis or Iran on their behalf launched attacks on Saudi oil installations and this provokes a U.S.-led or supported armed response, Yemen will have drawn the two states into a direct conflict.
Yemen is the most promising area for an initial de-escalation in U.S.-Iranian tensions, since neither country sacrifices any major geo-strategic interest nor forsakes any leverage in any future bi-lateral negotiations. Such deescalation can be done via indirect discussions through established U.N. negotiations and does not need to appear as an appeasement by either side. In fact, multiple parties to the conflict appear ready to take steps to end the bloodshed. There are indications that the U.S. State Department is engaging the Houthis in direct talks, while the latter have announced their willingness to commit to a cease-fire, despite ongoing aerial assaults. Iran, for its part, has noted a desire “to cooperate with the United Nations and all countries seeking peace in Yemen,” according to a government spokesman. These are all welcome developments.
Ending U.S. and Iranian involvement in Yemen will not resolve all matters of disagreement between the two rivals, nor may it lead to the end of hostilities in the war-torn country. But it would be the most obvious action for each country as an initial step to reassert a modicum of trust in their relationship, as well as end their complicity in human lives already lost and avert the future deaths of many others that a direct confrontation would certainly cause.
Kevin L. Schwartz is a research fellow at the Oriental Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague where he focuses on Iran. He was previously a research fellow at the Library of Congress and Distinguished Visiting Professor (Middle East Chair) at the U.S. Naval Academy. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.