Yemen and the American Impulse to Take Sides

Paul Pillar

A strong Manichean streak runs through American perceptions of the outside world.  That streak involves a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms, a presumption that one of the perceived two sides is good and the other bad, and an urge to weigh in on the presumptively good side. The influence that these tendencies have had on U.S. policy has varied over time. The influence was readily apparent, for example, during the George W. Bush administration's days of “you're either with us or with the terrorists.” The Obama administration has tried to move in a less Manichean and more realist direction, especially in conducting diplomacy with Iran and in so doing opening a door to a more fruitful all-azimuths diplomacy in the Middle East generally. But the current administration still operates in a political environment in which the old perceptual habits set limits on what the administration can do, or perhaps push it into doing things it might not otherwise have done.

There have been ample demonstrations throughout the Middle East of how inaccurate and inapplicable the Manichean perspective is. There is Iraq, where the United States and the Iranian bête noire are on the same side in countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. There is the even more complicated deadly brawl in Syria, where the people who from the viewpoint of the West are the closest thing to good guys are opposing the same regime that also is opposed by ISIS and the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

At least as clear a lesson both in the fallacies of the Manichean perspective and the mistake of the United States taking sides in such conflicts is found in the current strife in Yemen. But the lesson does not seem to have been learned, as reflected in U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Three major features of the conflict in Yemen are pertinent to that lesson.

One is that the conflict is at least as complicated and multidimensional as any others in the Middle East. It is impossible to draw a line that would put everyone worth supporting on one side and everyone worth opposing on the other, or even to come close to doing that. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—often considered the most capable Al-Qaeda affiliate today—is completely at odds with, and a confirmed enemy of, the Houthi forces who are the principal target of the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention. One of the most significant allies of the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for three decades was America's guy as ruler of Yemen.

Second, this war is, as Adam Baron has put it, “by and large, an internal Yemeni political conflict” that “remains deeply rooted in local Yemeni issues.” This fact has been obscured by those who, intent on depicting Iran as a dangerous wide-ranging regional renegade, portray the Houthi rebellion as part of some Iranian expansionist plan. It is nothing of the sort. The Houthis have been driven for years by grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen, and their more recent gains have mostly reflected the sympathy for those grievances among other Yemeni elements who have been similarly displeased and disadvantaged by the most recent Yemeni regimes.

Third, the motivations of outside actors intervening in this conflict are not ones that the United States ought to associate itself with. One set of motivations is sectarian. There is no advantage at all, and lots of disadvantage, for the United States to be seen identifying with one side or another in sectarian disputes within the Muslim world. Another set of motivations, rooted in decades of Saudi-Yemeni strife dating back to when the expansion of the Saudi kingdom first led to seizure of traditionally Yemeni provinces and to lingering border disputes, involves a Saudi desire to exercise dominance over the Arabian Peninsula and in particular this part of it. Graham Fuller observes, “Riyadh has always loathed Yemeni feistiness, independence, its revolutionary politics, and even its experiments with democracy.” The Saudis publicly play up the Iranian angle, but what they really don't like about the Houthis is that they haven't been able to buy off the Houthis as effectively as they have many other Yemeni elements. The Saudi objective of maintaining this kind of overlordship over its neighbors is also not an interest that the United States shares.

And yet the urge to take sides and intervene persists, as reflected in recent remarks about the Yemeni case by John McCain. The urge pays insufficient heed either to what is in U.S. interests or to what is effective. McCain asserted that the Saudis did not seek advance coordination with the United States concerning their intervention “because they believe we are siding with Iran.” Actually, according to a senior officer at U.S. Central Command, “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea.”

We know that the Obama administration is feeling the need these days to appear supportive of the Gulf Arabs because of angst related to the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. And if catering to that angst is one of the prices that has to be paid to get the agreement and, through it, to get closer to liberating U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East from rigid side-taking in the future, then this policy may turn out to be on balance worthwhile. But the Yemeni conflict itself still ought to serve as a lesson in the multiple reasons the United States would be better off to resist its side-taking urge.            

TopicsYemen Saudi Arabia Iran RegionsMiddle East

Does Obama Care What Iran Wants in Iraq?

The Buzz

Marina Shalabi and Ian Duff, two researchers at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have done some interesting spadework on the history of how the U.S. Director of National Intelligence’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment represents Iran and its proxies. While assessments from 2013 and earlier “[call] out Iran’s hegemonic goals” and explicitly identify Iran as a sponsor of terrorism, the last two “shifted away from Tehran's efforts to expand its regional hegemony and toward describing Iran as a protector of oppressed Shiites that seeks to reduce sectarian violence.” Shalabi and Duff offer a number of examples of this shift—consider this quote from the 2013 report:

In its efforts to spread influence abroad and undermine the United States and our allies, Iran is trying to exploit the fighting and unrest in the Arab world...Iran's efforts to secure regional hegemony, however, have achieved limited results, and the fall of the Asad regime in Syria would be a major strategic loss for Tehran.

Contrast that with this, from 2014:

Tehran, which strives for a stable Shia-led, pro-Iran government in Baghdad, is concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Tehran is probably struggling to find the balance between protecting Shia equities in Iraq and avoiding overt actions that would precipitate greater anti-Shia violence.

The current assessments aren’t particularly sanguine about the impact of Iran’s efforts—consider this, also from 2014:

We assess that Iran's perceived responsibility to protect and empower Shia communities will increasingly trump its desire to avoid sectarian violence. Hence, Iran's actions will likely do more to fuel rather than dampen increasing sectarianism.

The current reports have an important strength: they offer a subtler and more detailed account of what Iranian leaders intend to do in the short and medium term. That’s useful for American decisionmakers. What’s really missing is a long-term account of Iranian goals, their consequences for U.S. interests in the region, and a grand strategic U.S. policy approach that takes all that into account. The latter point is outside the responsibility of the Director of National Intelligence, but the broader Obama administration must answer on all three. Where does Iran see itself in ten years? In twenty, in thirty? Does it want to be a kind of regional empire, and if so, what does that entail? Are its neighbors strong enough to prevent that? Are we? If Iranian influence grows, will some of its current rivals be forced to take a more accommodating position toward Tehran, or will they rise up in confrontation? How does all this interlock with the danger of nuclear proliferation? Can Iran be a partner in stability? Is it an implacable foe? Answers to bigger questions like these need to be the main drivers of our approach to the region, even though near-term crises like the Islamic State group and the collapse of the Iraqi army will necessarily dominate day-to-day policy.

A nearsighted approach can keep the administration from getting nailed in press conferences, but it won’t necessarily lead to the best long-term outcomes. These are momentous days in Iraq—the changes happening at the ground levels of the Iraqi regime will likely reshape its approach for a very long time, with implications for America’s role in the region. We don’t have much evidence that long-term dynamics are impacting the administration’s thinking. They might not be in Tehran, either, which can certainly be read as acting as much from desperation as from aspiration. But the consequence of this mutual muddling through has so far been an increase in Iran’s influence over what’s left of Iraq, and it’s not clear that Team Obama has a vision of what sustained impact this may have on U.S. interests.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsIranIntelligence RegionsIranIraq

Hedging against Failure: Time to Play the Iranian Opposition Card

The Buzz

American nuclear negotiators believe they have achieved a breakthrough with their Iranian counterparts; some analysts agree, while others see many red flags and warn against an overly optimistic rush to celebration. It is too soon to determine whether this ultimately will have been a true turning point, but what is certain is that movement appears possible in U.S. – Iranian relations, for the first time in a long time.

Will a nuclear deal actually be signed, and will the resultant agreement ultimately be seen as an example of Iran outwitting and outmaneuvering the West, obtaining sanctions relief while still pressing forward with its nuclear ambitions?

Or will a slender beginning of cooperation and compromise grow into something more enduring? The outcome is not a foregone conclusion; rather, it is interactive, and much will depend on the further specific actions taken by the United States.

Rather than resting prematurely on the laurels of its still-tenuous deal, the U.S. administration must now seek ways to shape and optimize the outcome, regardless of what the possible unstated intentions of the Iranian regime may or may not be.

The key component in obtaining, keeping hold of and further expanding an actual breakthrough, is a hitherto neglected variable, the Iranian opposition. From independent but influential bloggers and intellectuals to a prosperous business elite with a sentimental attachment to the days of the monarchy, from activists with experience in sequential popular mini-uprisings and sustained mass demonstrations to the members of the controversial cadre-organization MeK, the Iranian opposition comprises an unparalleled base of potential civil society engagement. If the opening provided by advancing nuclear talks is to be positive and sustainable, a social and political opening will need to follow, and that in turn will have to achieved and developed by Iranian pro-democracy forces.

With this, a baffling gap in our knowledge about Iran becomes evident.

Over the past decades, experts have mostly focused on trying to puzzle out the convoluted power structures of the Iranian regime—president, Supreme Leader, Pasdaran and so forth—and before and after each election, analyzing the various new leading personalities in order to place them on the hardliner vs. moderate scale.

All the while, the Iranian citizenry has stood up a sustained, determined resistance to the oppressive rule of the clerical regime. Through everything from the low-level mass civil disobedience manifested by the thousands of satellite dishes hidden under laundry lines on rooftops to pull the signals of forbidden television and international news programs into Iranian living rooms, to the dramatic 2009 and 2010 Where is My Vote movement protesting the manipulation of election results, to the journalists languishing in Evin Prison, to the hardcore activists persisting in the face of the jailing, torture and execution of dozens of their comrades, the Iranian public has tried and tried again to rid itself of its theocracy.

In this they have shown impressive courage and persistence, with some of the groups and movements enduring under harsh and seemingly hopeless circumstances since the days of the revolution against the Shah. We have had ample time and opportunity to familiarize ourselves with them, but have remained focused instead on the regime – or, whenever we became particularly frustrated, on military ways to overturn that regime.

Consequently, we now know very little about this potential ace in the deck. What do they, respectively, stand for? How influential are they? What kinds of action can they muster? What sort of help would they need, in order to become a more effective force if a social and political opening indeed occurs?

Time and again, these are questions we fail to ask, or ask too late, or rush to judgment about – and the sequential disasters of the Arab Spring, the “liberation” of Libya (into an ungoverned territory), the “Syrian opposition” (and its heavy component of anti-Western thugs and pro-ISIS extremists) are the direct result of this willful blind spot.

It is a mistake we should not repeat versus Iran. If there is a true opening, it needs to be maximized. If the door appears to be closing again, we need some feet on the ground to hold it open. And this needs to be accomplished judiciously, with sophistication and nuance – not so provocatively as to scare off the regime, but not so timidly as to imply that they can assume a take-it-or-leave it stance, or play us for naïve.

In this emergent opportunity, it makes no sense to ignore one of the most significant added weights that we can throw onto the scales to tip the balance in favor of a positive result. And last not least, if this turns out to have been Islamic Republic smoke and mirrors, we will need an alternative set of counterparts and new options.

Dr. Cheryl Benard is the Director of Metis Analytics, a Washington-based research organization and co-author of Breaking the Stalemate – The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, Zola Books, New York 2015.

Image: Wikimedia/Mangostar

TopicsCivil Society RegionsMiddle East

Watch Out, China: India Is Launching New Stealth Destroyer

The Buzz

India will launch the lead vessel of its new class of super advanced, stealth destroyers on Saturday, according to numerous local media reports.

This week a number of Indian publications reported that the Indian Navy plans to launch the INS Visakhapatnam in Mumbai this weekend. The ship will be the first of four Visakhapatnam-class stealth destroyers that India is building as part of Project 15B. These vessels will serve as the follow-ons to the three Kolkata-class guided missile destroyers.

As India’s largest destroyer, INS Visakhapatnam and its sister ships will be a boon to India’s naval power projection capabilities.

“At 7,300 tonnes, Visakhapatnam will be the largest destroyer commissioned in the country and will be equipped with the Israeli Multi Function Surveillance Threat Alert Radar (MF-STAR) which will provide targeting information to 32 Barak 8 long-range surface to air missiles onboard the warship,” NDTV reported. India is co-developing the Barak 8 missile with Israel.

(Recommended: Does India Still Fear China's Growing Military?

The same outlet also noted that each Visakhapatnam destroyer will boast 16 long range Brahmos anti-ship missiles, the supersonic anti-ship missile that Delhi developed in cooperation with Russia.

Visakhapatnam-class destroyers have a number of other advantages over their predecessors as well. For example, while both classes are equipped with the AK-630 close-in anti-missile gun system the newer class will have a 127 mm main gun. By contrast, the INS Kolkata and its sister ships only have a 76mm Super Rapid Gun Mount (SRGM).

(Recommended: 5 Indian Weapons of War China Should Fear)

Similarly, a senior Indian naval official explained to India’s Economic Times, unlike the Kolkata-class, the Visakhapatnam-class destroyers will have a full-fledged Total Atmosphere Control System (TAC). This will give it a greater ability to operate in WMD environments.

“The TAC system provides you with the capability of operating in a fall-out region, be it a nuclear, chemical or biological almost endlessly...because the complete air being taken inside is through nuclear, biological and chemical filters except in the machinery compartment," Rear Admiral A K Saxena, Director General (Naval Design) told the Economic Times.

The new destroyer class will also enhance the Indian Navy’s ability to achieve information dominance. As NDTV noted:

Central to the Visakhapatnam is network-centric layout.mShe is equipped with a Ship Data Network (SDN), an Automatic Power Management System and a Combat Management System. Essentially, all information critical for the operation of the warship during all operations is available to key officers through the SDN which the Navy describes as a data information highway.

After being launched this Sunday, INS Visakhapatnam will undergo an extensive test and trial period before being delivered to the Indian Navy sometime in 2018. The other three Visakhapatnam-class destroyers will follow in two-year intervals.

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War India Should Fear)

Approximately $469.4 million is earmarked for Project 15B. Around 65 percent of the project is indigenous, according to numerous Indian media outlets.

Zachary Keck is Managing Editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.   

Image: Wikimedia/Brehmemohan

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouth Asia

Did Germany Secretly Fund Israel's Nuclear Weapons?

The Buzz

The conservative German daily Die Welt, well-known for its unflinching support for Israel, recently published an article stating “with near certainty” that the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, helped finance Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s.

According to the Welt report, in 1961 West Germany agreed to loan $500 million to Israel over ten years. Although the official purpose of this funding was said to be the development of the Negev Desert— where Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor is located— it is widely suspected that the money was actually meant to finance Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

This agreement was reportedly hatched during a 1960 meeting between then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. Franz Josef Strauss, a former West German defense minister, previously claimed Ben Gurion and Adenauer discussed Israel’s nuclear weapons program during a meeting in Paris in 1961.

This top secret initiative was reportedly named “Aktion Geschäftsfreund,” which translates as “Operation Business Partner.” It bypassed both the Israeli cabinet and the German parliament, with the money being funneled through Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, a West German-government owned development bank.

The Welt report comes after former Israeli President Shimon Peres (who was the head of Israel’s nuclear-weapons program at the time of its inception in the 1950s) denied that funding for Israel’s nukes came from Germany earlier this month.

The Welt article dismissed this denial, however, arguing that when it comes to German-Israeli cooperation on nuclear weapons, secret-keeping is part of the game. (Indeed, the practice—or art, rather—of secret-keeping with regards to sensitive matters of defense should be expected of any regime, nuclear or otherwise.)

Israel first began constructing a nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert near a town called Dimona in the 1950s. U.S. intel revealed the existence of the Dimona reactor in 1960 (although the U.S. knew of the reactor much sooner, new archival releases show). This prompted a statement by Prime Minister Ben Gurion that the reactor was purely for non-military purposes. Hardly anyone in the international community believed this was its true function.

Peres has stated that $40 million of Israeli government funding was going toward the Dimona reactor, but that this was only half of the amount necessary to complete the project. This prompted questions about where the other half of the money was coming from. Peres’ statement, according to Welt, is the only one that indicated that international donors contributed funds to the program (although it has since been revealed that some private American citizens helped fund the program).

The suspicion that West Germany was involved in financing Dimona first emerged when Ben Gurion made a background comment to an Israeli newspaper that a confrontation with Adenauer’s government would disrupt the development of Israel’s nuclear deterrent, which was integral to Israel’s security and the prevention of future wars.  

Still, whatever the West German involvement was in Israel’s nuclear weapons acquisition, it is undeniable that France played the largest role of any foreign power. In 1957, following the Suez Crisis, Peres and representatives from France signed three confidential contracts that allowed France to establish a 24-megawatt heavy-water reactor in Israel, loan it 385 tonnes of natural uranium, work together with Israel on nuclear-weapons research and production and back the building of a processing plant for plutonium extraction. This came a year after Peres asked French defense minister Maurice Bourges-Maunoury: “What would you think if Israel were to establish its own potential for retaliation?”

Norway also provided Israel with 20 tons of heavy water, which was actually delivered by the United Kingdom.

Rebecca M. Miller is assistant editor and illustrator at The National Interest. You can find her on Twitter: @RebecMil.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope