The Lead: Yemen reset linked to Iran
US ups the ante in Yemen
The Biden administration is shifting its approach to the Yemen war, now entering its seventh year, in response to escalating drone and missile attacks by Ansarallah (Supporters of God, the formal name of the Houthis) on the home territories of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Just this week, the United States committed more military support to its Gulf partners while weighing whether to return Ansarallah to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations or, failing that, sanctioning key Houthi leaders.
The bottom line is that the United States is getting more, not less, involved in Yemen, as crucial nuclear talks with the Houthis’ backer, Iran, enter their final weeks. Consider this timeline:
2021: A ‘particular focus’ on Houthi sanctions
- In response to the first question at his first press conference as secretary of state on Jan. 27, 2021, Antony Blinken said, "I’m particularly focused on the question of sanctions on the Houthis," suggesting that the Biden administration would reverse the Jan. 10 decision of the Trump administration to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in order to facilitate humanitarian assistance, which it did on Feb. 12.
- According to the UN, there were 600 coalition airstrikes a month across Yemen, 340 missile and drone attacks by Houthi forces on Saudi Arabia in 2021, in addition to the continuation of the "world’s worst humanitarian crisis."
2022: Holding Houthis ‘accountable’
So far in 2022, again according to the UN, there have been 1,403 coalition airstrikes on Yemen and an additional 39 attacks by the Houthis directly on Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
- Jan. 21: UN Security Council condemns "heinous terrorist attacks" on the UAE on Jan. 17, as well as on sites in Saudi Arabia.
- Jan. 24: National security adviser Jake Sullivan discusses joint efforts to hold the Houthis accountable with UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba and Saudi Ambassador to the United States Reema bint Bandar Al Saud.
- Jan. 31: Following the third Houthi attack on the UAE this month, Otaiba and UAE Permanent Representative to the United Nations Lana Nusseibeh write in The Wall Street Journal that the United States should relist the Houthis as a designated terrorist group.
- Feb. 2: State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Al-Monitor that the designation remains “under review,” and hinted at the possibility of further sanctions on Houthi individuals. “We will not relent in designating Houthi leaders and entities … I suspect we will be in a position to take additional action given the reprehensible attacks that we’ve seen emanate from Yemen from the Houthis.”
- Feb. 1: Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin tells Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan that the United States will continue to share intelligence, collaborate on air defense, and, in addition, send a missile destroyer and "fifth-generation fighter aircraft" to the UAE … as a clear signal that the United States stands with the UAE as a long-standing strategic partner.
Our take: Watch the Iran talks
- The stepped-up US military support is not just a sign of the US commitment to the UAE — it’s a signal to Iran.
- The Houthis are a penny stock investment for Iran: low investment, high return. Iranians also read the papers; they know that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been hammered by some in Congress for its conduct of the war — another dividend, in their score.
- Iran is unlikely to back a cease-fire while the stakes are so high and negotiations are ongoing in Vienna. A senior State Department official said Jan. 31 that there are only "a handful of weeks" left to close a nuclear deal and it is an "objective" of the United States to get to a separate discussion with Iran on regional security.
From our regional correspondents:
1. Iran and Israel: Bennett knocks Bibi’s ‘unacceptable’ legacy
In what Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has touted as a “period of unprecedented buildup,” the Israeli military has embarked on a massive spending spree that includes acquisitions of missiles, rockets, ammunition, refueling aircraft, development of laser-based interceptor systems and new cyber tools. Bennett told Al-Monitor that the billions in additional defense expenditure will “prevent war, not bring it closer,” and he hopes to raise Israel’s GDP to $1 trillion within 12 years.
Bennett also discussed Benjamin Netanyahu’s “unacceptable legacy” on Iran, Israel’s disagreements with its “great friend” the United States and his view of the Vienna talks. “[Iran] must be given a choice — survival of the regime or a continued race to nuclear capabilities, and they must not be given a gift of tens of billions,” he said. Read more of Ben Caspit’s recent interview with Bennett here.
2. Iran and Turkey: Iranian gas outages trigger energy review
In other Iran news, a disruption of Iranian gas supplies to Turkey this month triggered an unprecedented energy crunch that put Ankara’s energy preparedness under new scrutiny. The gas cut on Jan. 20, which was blamed on a technical hitch in the pipeline between neighbors, forced Turkey’s state pipeline operator to slash gas supplies to industrial zones and resulted in a supply drop of about 20 million cubic meters per day.
“The energy crunch hit production at hundreds of enterprises at a time when Turkey’s industry is already grappling with economic turmoil and skyrocketing gas and electricity prices, raising questions over Ankara’s energy ties with Tehran and its energy policies,” writes Muhdan Saglam. Energy pundits say the Turkish government was slow to respond to the stoppage, having failed to prepare for harsh winter weather and tough market conditions.
3. Iran and China: Beijing bolsters Iran ties with new consulate
Meanwhile, Iran has approved China’s opening of a new consulate in the port city of Bandar Abbas, in what Sabena Siddiqui calls “a significant development” for Sino-Iranian ties. The consulate — China’s first in Iran — is likely linked to the 25-year strategic pact the two countries signed in March 2021, which brought Tehran into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China remains Iran’s top trading partner. But whether the pair can deepen economic ties with the Islamic Republic hinges on the outcome of the Vienna talks, including whether the United States will lift its secondary sanctions on Iran.
4. Egypt boosts Africa investment with new solar plant
As the long-running dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt continues over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the Egyptian government is shoring up relations with other African countries. Most recently, Egypt inaugurated a solar power plant in eastern Uganda, which Ibrahim Ayyad reports is the latest example of an Egyptian development project on the African continent. The power plant’s opening comes amid recent reports that Addis Ababa has begun testing power generation at the GERD at a time when Cairo called for resuming negotiations on a binding agreement.
5. Hamas produces alternative to Israel’s ‘Fauda’
A new Hamas-backed action series is coming to television screens across the Arab world this spring. The 30-episode show called “Qabdat al-Ahrar” ("Fist of the Free") portrays the infiltration of an Israeli cell sent to the Gaza Strip to abduct a prominent Palestinian resistance leader.
The series was filmed on location in the Gaza Strip with local actors. Ahmad Melhem writes that Hamas is framing the show as the alternative to “Fauda,” a popular Israeli series about an Israeli counterterrorism unit operating in the West Bank.
Multimedia this week: Turkey in Ukraine, Islamic State prison break, Israel’s government
Listen: Back from her reporting trip to Ukraine, Amberin Zaman and analyst lliya Kusa discuss why Ukrainians are so fond of Turkey and its authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Link here.
Watch: A search is now underway to find Islamic State fighters who escaped from a Kurdish-run prison in northeast Syria last month. Link here.
Listen: Ben Caspit interviews Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli minister and retired brigadier general, about the Bennett-led government’s policy on the Palestinians. Link here.
Watch: Gilles Kepel talks with former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud about his new book, “The Afghanistan File.” Link here.