Ending Hostilities In Yemen Will Not Be So Easy

After Sunday’s drone and missile attacks against oil facilities and other targets in Saudi Arabia, the United States expressed alarm at the ‘genuine security threats’ the Saudis are facing from Yemeni-based and Iranian supported Houthi rebels. Not to sound facetious, but I honestly do not understand why the Biden administration is just now waking up to the realization that the Houthi rebels pose a danger to Saudi Arabian territory and economic interests. This past weekend saw Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export terminal at the port of Ras Tanura targeted. No damage was caused to the terminal, but fragments from an exploding ballistic missile did fall on the nearby ARAMCO facility.

Sunday was not the first time that the Houthis launched drone and missile attacks against economic targets inside of the Kingdom. The attack against the Abqaiq facility in 2019 caused considerable damage and affected Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The most recent attacks are not expected to have an effect on either production, or oil prices beyond today. Yet the attacks have helped to demonstrate how complicated ending the civil war in Yemen will be. The Houthis are clearly not prepared to talk peace right now, as this weekend revealed.

The White House has apparently noticed this, and the Biden administration sounds downright miffed. “We continue to be alarmed by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a press conference.

Well, to be fair, its probably not entirely the Houthis decision whether or not they come to the peace table. Tehran has reestablished its influence with the Yemeni-based group and is calling the shots once again. The US has not helped the prospects of ending the war in Yemen much lately either. Last month the Biden administration removed US support for Saudi military operations inside of Yemen. Though a bit naïve, the move was an act of good faith. Unfortunately, it has had almost the exact opposite effect and is enticing the Houthis to resume attacks on the economic infrastructure of Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration will eventually learn how to navigate the Yemen quagmire, but it is coming at a cost.

US Ends Support For Saudi-Led Military Operations In Yemen

On Thursday President Joe Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi Arabian-led military operations in Yemen. He pointed to the large-scale humanitarian crisis going on in that country as being a key motivation behind this decision and lays blame for the present situation in that country at the feet of Saudi Arabia. Iran and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have apparently played no role in Yemen’s suffering according to the curious rationale behind the Biden administration’s decision. The reversal of policy is also nothing short of a slap in the face to Saudi Arabia, a strategic partner of the United States.

All of the combatants and the nations supporting them are responsible for what has transpired in Yemen. Yet the Biden administration has chosen to make an example out of Saudi Arabia. To be fair, the Saudis and their allies have been fighting the Houthi rebels inside Yemen for five years now without resolution. The Saudi intervention has largely checked Iranian ambitions on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, though this has caused a tremendous amount of collateral damage in Yemen, as well as a limited amount in Saudi Arabia itself. By ending US support for future operations in Yemen, the Biden administration runs the risk of emboldening Tehran and providing them with an opening to repair frayed relations with the Houthis and reestablish its foothold in Yemen.  

Biden also announced an end to ‘relevant’ arms sales, though he provided no details on just what this means. It probably indicates a pause to some of the arms deals the Trump administration worked out with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a major ally of the Saudis in the Yemen conflict. Biden did assure the Saudis that the US will continue to play a key role in the Kingdom’s defense, but that promise gives the appearance of a pat on the head to Riyadh, as well as a warning that the future political and military decisions by the Kingdom will bring about consequences if they fail to fall in line with the foreign policy designs of the Biden administration in the Persian Gulf region.

Iranian Involvement Suspected In Monday’s Oil Tanker Attack

Monday’s attack on a Singapore-flagged oil tanker docked at the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah is raising fears of more attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure as US-Iranian tensions continue to mount. Although no nation, or group has yet taken responsibility for the attack on the BW Rhine, Iran is viewed as the instigator as the attack was likely carried out by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels, an Iranian proxy group. The tanker was struck by a small boat carrying explosives causing blast damage and a fire on board. The attack has temporarily closed the Saudi port and brought on concern about the safety of oil tankers in the Red Sea.

Iran is thought to have played a role in the attack. The recent assassination of nuclear scientist  Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, coupled with the declining health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other regional setbacks are forcing Iran to demonstrate it is capable of striking back at US and Saudi interests in the region. The above-mentioned events supply Iran with motive while the Houthis provided means. It is by no means a clear cut indication of guilt, however, all signs do seem to be pointing towards Iran.

US Suspects Iran Could Be Planning Military Action

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In the last twenty-four hours signs have appeared indicating Iran could potentially be planning a military move somewhere in the Persian Gulf region. The indicators started coming to the surface shortly after it was revealed that a US Navy warship seized a major shipment of Iranian arms headed to the Houthi rebels in Yemen last week. Since then, US military and intelligence officials have been closely analyzing the information coming out of the region and are concluding that Iranian action is possible.

It appears that Iran is using the chaos in Iraq as a cover to secretly move additional short-range ballistic missiles into the country. From points just outside of Baghdad these missiles can be launched against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively. The appearance of missiles in Iraq is not a new development. US intelligence has been warning of their presence since last year, and Israel launched airstrikes to destroy the hidden weaponry. The threat from the short range ballistic missiles is increasing as their numbers have been increasing lately.

Earlier in the week, the Trump administration has hinted that it could be sending additional troops to the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iran continue to rise. The size and make up of the new deployment remains to be seen, however, as the week has gone on, it seems certain that new US forces will begin moving to the Gulf in a matter of days in an attempt to strengthen US military options in the region should Iran decide to move.

The Iranians appear to be reacting to the prospect of more US forces in the area. According to reports from media sources, and from inside of the Pentagon, Iran has started moving additional air defense units to Bushehr, site of its sole nuclear reactor, and also the location where a new reactor is under construction. Obviously, the air defenses are being strengthened there to deter the US from launching air and cruise missile strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

November 2019 DIRT Project Update: Iran

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The economic sanctions placed on Iran by the Trump administration are working almost flawlessly. I’ve talked about this in recent blog posts and hope to get into it deeper in the coming week.  For the moment, however, its important to understand the amount of pressure Iran is facing domestically, and beyond its borders because of the sanctions imposed by the US. The sanctions have severely restricted the monetary, material, and military resources Iran can invest in its proxies around the Middle East. Within Iranian borders, the sanctions have brought on a budget crisis, and rising fuel costs which themselves have resulted in riots, and internal unrest. Lebanon, and Iraq are also experiencing violent riots as citizens protest economic conditions, as well as Iranian influence in their national politics. Iran is reeling at the moment. Diplomats, general officers, and analysts around the Middle East, Europe, and North America are attempting to create an accurate picture of what will come next. How will Iran respond? Does Tehran understand that time is no longer their ally? If so, what steps will the Iranian government take to reverse its fortunes without surrendering its nuclear program?

I have not had as much time to write in these past weeks, but I will attempt to answer these questions and discuss Iran in detail over the upcoming Thanksgiving week.