Navy aircraft carrier on its way to Yemen

Navy aircraft carrier on its way to Yemen

The U.S. Navy on Monday sent an aircraft carrier to Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are backing opposite sides in a civil war that threatens to further destabilize the Middle East. 

The escalating conflict is a significant challenge for President Obama, who is walking a tightrope in seeking to reach a final nuclear deal with Iran that has been criticized by U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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The U.S. and Sunni Arab nations in the region have accused Iran of arming Shia Houthi rebel forces, a claim that Teheran denies. 

Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf state allies have launched a military campaign against the Houthi rebels, who drove President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile late last month. 

The U.S. is providing logistical support to the Saudi-led campaign. The stakes are high; Hadi was a crucial U.S. partner in fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the group has made major gains amid the chaos in Yemen. 

But experts say the White House faces a challenge in keeping Gulf Arab nations unified while it is tries to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, the Saudis’ chief regional rivals.

“This is a very, very dangerous game of the U.S. trying to appease both sides but eventually getting nothing,” said Asher Orkaby, a senior research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.

Despite offering cautious public support, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have concerns about the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran, which would lift sanctions on Teheran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.

They worry that Iran, unshackled from international sanctions tied to its nuclear program, could experience an economic revival that would allow it to expand its influence in the Middle East and its support for rebel groups, such as the Houthis. 

The Navy has deployed the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier, and the USS Normandy, a guided-missile cruiser, to the Gulf of Aden off the Yemeni coast. 

The deployment comes after The Hill reported last Friday that Iran was sending a flotilla of seven to nine ships — some containing arms — to possibly resupply Houthi forces in Yemen. The Roosevelt and Normandy will join seven other U.S. ships in the region. 

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday the U.S. ships are heading there “because of Yemeni instability” and not to intercept the Iranian vessels.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest would not comment Monday on the ship movements but said Iran’s efforts to supply Houthi forces could destabilize the region. 

“We have seen evidence that the Iranians are supplying weapons and other armed support to the Houthis in Yemen,” he said. “That support will only contribute to greater violence in that country.”

He said U.S. officials have directly relayed their concerns to the Iranians, who are “acutely aware of our concerns for their continued support of the Houthis by sending them large shipments of weapons.”

Support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations could be critical for the nuclear deal.

Obama on Monday met with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a U.S. ally in the region. The two leaders discussed the Iran deal as well as the conflict in Yemen, where the UAE is participating in the bombing campaign.  

Next month, Obama is hosting leaders from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council, who want closer security ties with the U.S. as they combat the Houthis in Yemen and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

If the situation in Yemen worsens, that could embolden the Iran deal’s congressional critics, who are poised to take up a bill that would allow lawmakers to review any final agreement. 

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerGOP revolts multiply against retiring Ryan Can Jim Jordan become top House Republican? Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP MORE (R-Ohio) has called Iran’s support for rebels in Yemen “a cause for great concern.” 

“They’re only talking about the nuclear agreement while they continue to spread terrorism … send money, send troops, to cause havoc, to try to broaden their influence in the region,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerGOP revolts multiply against retiring Ryan Can Jim Jordan become top House Republican? Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP MORE said last week in an interview with Fox Business.  

The White House said Iran’s support for insurgent groups and its regional ambitions are all the more reason to strike a deal to curb its nuclear program. 

Earnest said the list of grievances against Iran has “not gotten any shorter, but that list only includes elements that are even more dangerous if we are talking about a
nuclear-armed Iran.”

But if the U.S. continues to back the Saudi-led bombing campaign, it could harden the resolve of Houthi supporters, who see the group as Yemen’s protector against foreign invaders, according to Orkaby. 

In an interview with NPR this month, Obama expressed hope that a nuclear deal could change Iran by strengthening moderate forces within the country. 

But a ballooning regional war in the Middle East pitting the U.S. against Iran could snuff out any chance of that happening. 

The U.S.’s broader goals in engaging with Iran “could be seriously harmed by the current policy in Yemen,” Orkaby said.