A US–Iran strategy begins in Yemen

President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey: Barr is 'sliming his own department' GOP Mueller critic says Flynn contacted him during special counsel probe: report Acting DHS secretary threatened to quit after clashing with Miller: report MORE’s recent re-imposed Iran sanctions may well backfire. The stated objective of the new sanctions is to try to change Iran’s behavior in the Middle East and to reduce its influence in the region. These objectives are likely not achievable with sanctions, which have a good chance of working only if the whole world agreed to join in – it doesn’t! Further, Iran’s behavior is not likely to be affected, at least not in a positive way, by further squeezing it.

National Security advisor, John Bolton, said recently: “The objective has been from the beginning to get oil exports from Iran down to zero. It is our intention to squeeze them very hard. As the British say: ‘Squeeze them until the pips squeak’.”  

This sounds more like regime-change language – certainly with an intention to hurt not to positively influence behavior. Not strange coming out of Bolton, but ineffective to say the least.

The administration’s own plan includes an exemption from participation in the sanctions regime for each of China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. This means that literally half the population of the globe is excused from implementing the sanctions. When you add Russia and much of Europe – countries that haven’t gone along with the notion of sanctions at all - this leaves the U.S. as the principal boycotter of Iranian oil, something it doesn’t need much of to begin with.

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As for the financial instruments embedded in the sanctions, the dangers seem to revert back to the U.S.-led world economy. Iran has gotten by, going on 40 years now, with minimal reliance on the international financial system. Trump’s insistence on punishing European allies if they don’t comply is driving Europe to seek other means of trading with Iran while circumventing the Dollar and the current international banking system. The long term implications of this might be disruptive for much of the world, but it would certainly hurt U.S. leadership in the process.

Logically, if the goal is truly to positively influence Iran’s behavior, the objective should be to get it more engaged in international diplomacy and conflict resolution, not to further isolate it. In this regard, the recent push to end the war in Yemen presents an opportunity.

The JCPOA, despite achieving a freeze and de-escalation in Iran’s nuclear program, clearly had its limitations. The Trump administration is correct to point out that the agreement did nothing to limit Iran’s rocketry or its influence in the region – it wasn’t meant to, at least not in the short run. Negotiations consciously skirted these issues in order not to overshoot the target – halting the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program. 

Where Trump’s rhetoric went astray was in dismissing the value of what was achieved – the freezing of Iran’s nuclear program – and blaming the agreement for something it didn’t set out to accomplish – in effect throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The Obama administration sought first and foremost to freeze and then roll back Iran’s nuclear program, hoping that a successful agreement would set the stage for later discussions of broader political issues – something that was not accomplished during Obama’s term in office. Iran’s diplomacy during the talks did show some positive signs. Iran’s rhetoric was far more pragmatic and friendly during the talks than what the world had witnessed during the presidency of Ahmadinejad. In fact, going beyond style, Khamenei himself clearly demonstrated a desire to reach an agreement with the West, by allowing the negotiations to take place.

Iran’s willingness to enter into tension-reducing negotiations over such matters as Syria and Iraq was never put to the test.

In 2012, the test would’ve involved Syria. Today, that ship has sailed, with Russia having taken over the Syrian file, both militarily in helping the regime win the war and diplomatically in reaching agreements with Iran and Turkey on transition issues.

Today, the Yemen conflict is central, and it is there that a positive role for Iran could be sought.

Iran and the Houthis do not have a long history together, only minimally aware of or interested in one another when the Houthis first emerged as a political group in the nineties. The two moved gradually to embrace one another as Saudi involvement in Yemen grew, first in 2009 when KSA bombed northern Yemen in support of then president Saleh, then again in 2014 as the Houthis took over Sanaa, ousting president Hadi in the process.

Iran’s media, which had hitherto ignored Yemen and the Houthi movement, took interest first in 2010, and then in 2011 and 2014 when Saleh’s departure created a power vacuum into which the Houthis stepped. On Twitter, Iran’s English service Press TV, and the Arabic service al-Alam, have since pushed the theme of Zaidi Yemenis as a downtrodden and oppressed minority rising against Saudi funded oppression by the central government and by Salafi Jihadis in Yemen. The demands of the Houthis are now described, by both Iran’s government and Lebanese Hezbollah, as the demands of the people of Yemen. 

If Iran and Hezbollah’s rhetoric has been high pitched on the subject of Yemen, they have done precious little by way of direct intervention to help their ally – given the distance, the air, land and sea blockade around Yemen and their own preoccupation with higher priorities in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This doesn’t mean they haven’t tried.  Since at least the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, Iran has managed to send weapons, first by commercial aircraft before the air blockade was set up and then via small boats to several of many small informal ports around Yemen.  Hezbollah, for its part, has supplied military training, strategic advice and media support.

The Houthis, lacking any other form of international support, have latched on to Tehran and Beirut, increasingly adopting Shia practices and religious symbols and borrowing from Hezbollah’s leader Nassrallah some of his rhetorical flourish.

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Iran has survived 40 years of sanctions – of one degree or another – and though the population of the country will suffer from the country’s reduced income, the regime itself won’t. Furthermore, this regime does not respond well to threats and, unlike Kim Jung Un, will not engage in theatrics.

The Trump administration has one of two choices to change Iran’s behavior, diplomacy or war. Since the latter is recognized by one and all (except perhaps Bolton) as a disastrous choice, the former remains the only rational option. 

Here’s where Yemen come in. Invite Iran, given its religious and political affinity with the Houthis, to assist in bringing the Yemen war to an end. Hezbollah’s S.G. has already hinted at such a possibility in a recent speech that this may be the best time for Saudi Arabia to do something positive and end the war in Yemen.

By approaching Iran for help, the Trump administration would be killing the proverbial two birds with one stone – establishing its own initiative to resolve the conflict and giving Iran a chance to play a positive role by prevailing on the Houthis to yield to international pressure and accept certain compromises.

Broadly speaking, a ceasefire could be agreed to along the Saudi-Yemeni borders, a cessation of hostilities across all battlefields, followed by de-escalatory steps taken reciprocally leading up to the restoration of elected government in Sanaa.

If this works and Iran lends a helping hand, it would set a precedent for U.S.-Iranian collaboration, which would in turn help establish a less hostile environment in which to discuss other regional conflicts currently causing tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other.

Nabeel A. Khoury is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center for the Middle East. He retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2013 with the rank of Minister Counselor, after 25 years in the Foreign Service. In his last overseas posting, Khoury served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yemen (2004-2007). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at US Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. Follow him on Twitter @khoury_nabeel.