Editor's Note (February 5, 2021): President Biden is abandoning Saudi Arabia while it is under attack by Iranian-sponsored Houthi rebels in Yemen. This is a failure to understand Iran's war in Yemen and AMERICAN interests in the Red Sea & Gulf of Aden. This article originally appeared in The Hill in 2018. The issues and the stakes remain the same.
“The Senate voted on Thursday to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen,” wrote the New York Times in a recent article that never mentioned Iran, thereby missing the entire point.
The Senate’s goal was to punish Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, for the role he and his government reportedly played in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi’s murder brought attention to “the fact that we have been led into this civil war in Yemen, half a world away, into a conflict in which few Americans that I know can articulate what American national security interest is at stake,” said one senator.
He should know better.
The mullahs of Iran have declared war not only on the West and Israel, but also on Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina near the Red Sea, and Egypt, home of al-Azhar University, are prime targets. Iran has been harassing shipping in the Persian Gulf — east of Saudi Arabia — for years. Iranian fast attack craft have charged U.S. Navy ships, their drones have buzzed American fighter jets, and lasers were directed at U.S. helicopters operating at sea. These efforts culminated in the capture of 10 American sailors in 2016.
Such harassment largely stopped in 2017, but Iran has been sailing warships in the Red Sea to the west of Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, Qassem Soleimani, declared, “The Red Sea, which was secure, is no longer secure with the American presence.”
Our senators might want to consult a map.
Iran has no border on the Red Sea, but a base in the heel of the Saudi boot, i.e., in Yemen, would put it in a perfect position to encircle Saudi Arabia by water, and to also undermine Egypt, Jordan and Israel. It would allow access to overland routes through Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan — and directly into Egypt — for the purpose of arming rebels along the coast and the militias Egypt has been fighting in the Sinai desert.
The Red Sea is the only Israeli outlet to the Gulf of Aden and then the Arabian Sea, the route of Israel’s burgeoning trade with India and China. It is Jordan’s only sea outlet, and the Eilat-Aqaba Free Trade Zone is a major source of trade revenue for America’s ally, King Abdullah II. For Egypt, it is the route to and from the Suez Canal.
Therefore, Iran has been stoking the Houthi insurrection in Yemen, providing, among other things, long-range missiles that have been fired into Riyadh. U.S. warships have intercepted several Iranian weapons shipments intended for Houthi militias. Other shipments have been intercepted coming overland from Oman. All such shipments to the Houthis are in violation of U.N. resolutions.
If security and freedom of navigation for these allies are not sufficient reasons for the United States to be concerned with Iran at the chokepoint of the Bab el Mandeb Strait, consider this: Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. naval expeditionary base, sits directly opposite Yemen off Djibouti. Camp Lemonnier is home to the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) and the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) and is the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa.
What does the base do there? The countries north of the Mediterranean Sea are European, all of which except Bosnia are NATO members. Facing them, along the North African coast, are Sunni Muslim countries, all of which except Libya are partners in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue. The arrangement helps keep the Mediterranean stable and free for shipping.
One way to make North Africa less stable is to make the row of countries underneath it less stable. Chad, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Niger all are targets of instability seekers, including Iran.
The United States helps those governments more effectively control their own territory and borders, reducing the likelihood of transnational jihad. They are, to be sure, as much targets of Sunni jihad as they are of Iran, but Iran’s massive infusion of funds supports Sunni Hamas, al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, al Shabab and others. Instability, chaos, anti-Americanism, anti-Israelism, anti-Westernism and anti-Christianity are what Iran seeks — and they are what Sunni jihadists seek.
In Iraq and Syria, ISIS did the destabilizing and Iran reaped the benefit.
How the United States should position itself, vis-a-vis MbS or the Yemen war, is a matter for debate. But members of the U.S. Senate should be able to articulate American national security interests in the Middle East and Africa — and to recognize Iran as the threat to those interests.