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Is Iran Backing Down in Yemen?

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By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Correspondent for In Homeland Security

Today, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile carrier USS Normandy inched closer to Yemeni shores, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen. President Rouhani offered a political solution of power-sharing through a new inclusive government. The two U.S. warships joined seven already in the area.

The New York Times quoted a Saudi Defense Ministry statement in the country’s news as saying, “the objectives of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ have been achieved” and that it has ceased air strikes in Yemen. Tehran reported today that it had expected the ceasefire. There are humanitarian concerns, but Saudi objectives were largely a show of force and intended to stop an advance of Houthi assaults against the town of Aden.Yemen Saudi ceasefire

Yemen, the poorest of the Arab countries, has been involved in a four week Saudi-led air power campaign against the Shia Muslim Houthi rebel government which had taken control last year. Iran has been supplying the Houthi with funding and weapons. Food supplies are threatened by the closure of airports and ports from the bombing of Sunni coalition forces.

The recent U.S. response in the Gulf of Aden is just another polarizing force against an already overextended Iran. U.S. officials said the key objectives were to safe-guard the shipping lanes but could request a mutual boarding inspection to guarantee there are no arms on the Iranian convoy. According to BBC, the U.S. has warned Tehran not to supply the Houthi with arms but said they would not stop an incoming Iranian naval convoy. So far, the U.S. remains out of the conflict, but it clearly supports the Saudi resolve and has offered some intelligence support.

As for Iran, it cannot afford a sustained conflict in Yemen; especially against the odds of a ten plus military coalition against it that is led by Saudi Arabia and tacitly, if not openly, backed by Washington. President Rouhani’s latest move is basically an offer for a draw in regards to Yemen. The Saudi reply is a virtual acceptance. This way, neither loses, Yemen is not beyond salvation and the extremists do not take over. Also, Tehran has no interest in seeing more American warships and once again, it cannot fight off the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and deal with Yemen and al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula at the same time.

Events are still unfolding with questions to be asked: Does Iran really have as much pull with the Houthi that many suspect? Are the Houthi in that bad of fighting shape or are they willing to share power with Sunni Muslims and accept Saudi influence again? How can the Saudi accomplish any verification process that the Houthi are in compliance to any agreements? The National Guard was at the same time called into action as the ceasefire of aerial strikes took place.

The Iranians might also simply be buying time, knowing that they cannot control their Shia brothers in Yemen and adopting a Russian-to-Ukraine strategy—gain more space through diplomacy and ceasefires and then build and hold position through reinforcements, resupply and loud provocations.

On the other hand, President Rouhani’s offer could be completely legitimate. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated the Iranian position of an immediate ceasefire and expressed the desire for the U.S. and international community place the “manufactured crisis [in Yemen] to rest.”

The difficulty is that Iran has been the clear aggressor in the region and the rebalancing is a matter of putting them in check. At the same time, the caution is that this is more than geopolitics and Iran has some legitimate concerns as to the well being and welfare of Shias in conflict areas and the extremists that threaten their annihilation. There is a de facto regional cold war at foot between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But Iran needs to offer an olive branch too and has been unwilling to do so out of fear for loss, attack and survival. Getting Tehran in a position of trust and security guarantees will be essential in resolving a larger crisis early on passed Yemen, if possible.

As always, the readiness of force is essential, but an overbalancing of power is also possible. Iran may be willing to compromise with regards to Yemen but it is ultimately the Houthi that the Saudi coalition must deal with.

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