Yemen Is the First Battleground in Trump’s Confrontation With Iran
The administration has its sights set on checkmating Tehran’s ambitions across the region. Iran’s proxies in Yemen are in the crosshairs.
The Trump White House has begun stepping up action against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, part of a broader plan to counter Tehran by targeting its allies in the impoverished Gulf state.
On Thursday, the United States diverted a destroyer to the Yemeni coast to protect shipping from Iranian-backed rebels, and is weighing tougher steps including drone strikes and deploying military advisers to assist local forces, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
“There’s a desire to look at a very aggressive pushback” against Iran in Yemen within the administration, a source advising the Trump national security team said. Given the public rhetoric and private deliberations in the White House, the United States could “become more directly involved in trying to fight the Houthis” alongside Saudi and Emirati allies, said the source, who asked not to be named as he had not been authorized by the White House to comment.
President Donald Trump’s aides see Yemen as an important battleground to signal U.S. resolve against Iran and to break with what they consider the previous administration’s failure to confront Tehran’s growing power in the region. But the tough approach carries the risk of triggering Iranian retaliation against the United States in Iraq and Syria, or even a full-blown war with Iran.
On Friday, national security advisor Michael Flynn released a statement accusing the international community of having been “too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior,” adding “the Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests.”
In the first visible response to Monday’s attack on a Saudi frigate by Houthi suicide boats, the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, was ordered away from a “routine mission” in the Persian Gulf late Thursday and sent to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a Pentagon official told FP. The Cole is the same warship hit by a lethal Qaeda suicide bombing in 2000 in the Yemen port of Aden, which left 17 sailors dead.
The U.S. destroyer will escort vessels passing the Yemeni coastline and into the Red Sea said the official, who asked for anonymity to speak about the movement of the ship. The area saw Houthi missile attacks on a U.S. destroyer in January that fell short, and a direct hit on a United Arab Emirates vessel in October.
Additionally, on Friday, the administration slapped a new round of sanctions on Iranian businesses, backing up a stream of threats and condemnations it issued in response to Iran’s recent ballistic missile test.
To counter Iran’s proxies in Yemen, the administration is considering ramping up drone strikes, deploying more military advisors and carrying out more commando raids, the administration advisor and Republican congressional staffers said. The review also includes possibly expediting approval for military strikes against militants in Yemen — which required high level deliberations under the Obama administration — and expanding efforts to block Iranian arms deliveries to the Houthi forces.
Having campaigned on a get-tough policy toward Iran, Trump’s first test came over the weekend, when Iran conducted a ballistic missile test, followed by the Houthi boat attack. Those moves are reinforcing Flynn’s already-hawkish instincts toward Iran, the adviser said.
“Flynn wants to very strongly counter Iranian efforts” throughout the Middle East, but questions remain over the timing and the details of any stepped up U.S. role in Yemen or elsewhere, the advisor said.
The new round of sanctions target Iranian individuals and companies involved in Tehran’s missile program, some of whom are based in the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and China. The sanctions handed down Friday would not violate the nuclear agreement between Iran and major powers, but were widely viewed as a first step in a series of measures by the Treasury Department designed to squeeze Iran and discourage foreign investment. The 2015 nuclear agreement imposed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting international sanctions.
Washington has already played a role in the Yemeni civil war, supporting the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels for the past two years, providing hundreds of aerial refueling flights and drone surveillance missions to identify targets. The Pentagon curtailed some of its intelligence assistance last year, after Saudi Arabia drew international condemnation for the killing of scores of civilians during poorly planned airstrikes.
Former president Barack Obama’s administration long played down the scale of Iran’s assistance to the rebels in Yemen and did not portray Tehran’s activity as a major security threat. Instead, the previous administration placed a higher priority on targeting al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which intelligence agencies have long described as the most capable in the terror network.
In a series of stern warnings to Iran that continued through Friday, Trump and Flynn — with backing from congressional Republicans — vowed a tougher stance to counter Iranian missile programs and Tehran’s continued support for the Houthis.
On Wednesday, Flynn strode into the White House briefing room to deliver the warning that the administration is “officially putting Iran on notice,” but refused to elaborate what might be under consideration.
After meeting with Flynn on Friday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there needed to be “a coordinated, multi-faceted effort to pushback against a range of illicit Iranian behavior” in Yemen and the Middle East.
One worry inside the administration is that Iran will expand its support for the Houthi rebels if Yemen’s civil war continues to grind on without resolution, threatening neighboring Saudi Arabia and international shipping passing along the coast — one of the world’s key maritime choke points.
But deeper military involvement in Yemen is risky. An assault by U.S. Navy SEALs and Emirati commandos on Saturday in central Yemen — meant to attack al Qaeda terrorists unaffiliated with Tehran — was the first known U.S.-led ground operation in Yemen since December 2014, and it underscored the dangers of sending in American forces in the chaotic country. One Navy SEAL died, as did an unknown number of civilians.
“The raid may signal a growing U.S. interest in getting more involved clandestinely in Yemen,” though most likely in an advisory role, said Seth Jones, a former adviser to special operations forces and an expert on counter-terrorism.
“There will be limited boots on the ground for direct action or drone strikes,” said Jones, a fellow at the RAND Corp. “I expect that most of it will be working with local partner forces on the ground.”
But ramping up pressure against the Houthis could backfire, pouring more fuel on the civil war and pushing the rebels even deeper into Tehran’s orbit, said Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
The U.S. is “siding with the government that is seen as illegitimate to a majority of the population in northern Yemen,” Zimmerman said.
Photo credit: Department of Defense
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce