Yemen pays the price for the Iran deal

Yemen pays the price for the Iran deal
Comment: Obama has had to let the Saudis have their way in Yemen in order to win their approval for the Iran nuclear deal, writes Bill Law
4 min read
15 Sep, 2015
Yemen, already a poor country, is now on the verge of famine [AFP]

It's not quite "peace for our time", and Obama is not the new Neville Chamberlain, nor Iran Nazi Germany.

But in at least one respect the nuclear deal which was agreed in July and is now poised to go through the US Senate does share one stark comparison with the Munich Agreement - and that is this: a small country sacrificed in the interest of great power politics.

In 1938, it was Czechoslovakia, carved up in an attempt to satiate Adolf Hitler's unquenchable thirst for lebensraum. And today it is Yemen, poor, bleeding Yemen that is the sacrificial lamb.

In reflecting upon the murderous chaos that the Middle East is rapidly becoming, history will surely acknowledge that the fate of this one country, cruelly ignored at the time, was in fact a beacon illuminating the precise point where the world lost its way.

The Saudis embarked on the war in Yemen to put a stop to a Houthi rebellion that was threatening to overrun the entire country. The Saudis view the Houthis as little more than Iranian proxies - and the thought that Iran was apparently poised to establish a Shia beachhead in Saudi Arabia's back yard was one that the ruling family simply could not abide.

The plan was to launch a short, quick aerial war that would break the back of the rebellion and enable the return of the Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had been ignominiously chased out of the country by the Houthis.

     As the bombing campaign continued, the Saudis and their allies were not overly concerned about the mounting civilian casualties

And so, on 26 March, began Operation Decisive Storm, with a coalition of nine Arab states spearheaded by the Saudis.

But the war did not end quickly. And as the bombing campaign continued, the Saudis and their allies were not overly concerned about the mounting civilian casualties, the destruction of water filtration plants, the attacks on munitions dumps that spilled over into local neighbourhoods - the overall degrading of the infrastructure of one of the world's poorest countries.

The people of Yemen find themselves caught between the Houthis, equally capable of targeting civilians, and the Saudis. The Saudis are anxious to end this war and have now committed ground troops, as have the Emiratis, the Bahrainis and the Qataris. But few experts think the end will come soon. 

The Houthis have proven themselves to be a ruthless and wily opponent.

Thus far, thousands have died, more than a million are internally displaced, the country is on the brink of famine and still a savage aerial bombardment carries on.

When President Obama sat down to discuss the Iran deal with King Salman on 5 September, he knew he needed to get the Saudis onside. Their acceptance of the deal would quiet the growing Republican chorus that he was appeasing a terror state, and it would make the passage through congress and the senate not only possible but almost breathtakingly easy.  

He got what he needed when the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al Jubair, speaking on the king's behalf, said Saudi Arabia was "satisfied".

"Salman fishing in the Yemen" - read more of Bill Law's commentary here

Gaining approval from their key Gulf ally has effectively silenced Obama's critics, a fact underlined when Colin Powell, the former secretary of state in the George W Bush administration, added his voice to that of the Saudis, calling it "a pretty good deal".

Obama was not about to draw King Salman's attention to the folly of the war - a war that has seen their joint enemy and sworn foe, al-Qaeda, grow like topsy in the south of Yemen while the Saudis are busy bombing the Houthis. 

He was not going to point out the sheer danger of creating another failed state for Islamist extremists to exploit - this one right on Salman's doorstep. 

And he certainly was not going to play the humanitarian card, to point out for example the 21 million Yemenis now facing starvation. That was left to one of his minions who earnestly requested that air attacks took heed of civilians. 

And Iran, what of Iran - the putative supporters of the Houthi? Well Iran wants this nuclear deal very badly indeed. It needs it because it needs the sanctions to be lifted. It needs it for its desperately ailing economy. It needs it for their global reputation - Tehran needs to be seen as a reasonable player in an uncertain and unstable world.

     Iran will not speak too loudly against the unspeakable cruelty of this war

So Iran will not speak too loudly against the unspeakable cruelty of this war.

Set against the exigencies of big power politics, Yemen is rapidly becoming what Neville Chamberlain so infamously said of Czechoslovakia in 1938, that it was "a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing".

Ignoring Yemen, allowing the Saudis a free hand, is as foolhardy and reckless as it is immoral. And just as with Munich, it will surely come back to haunt us.

Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.