Middle East Mess
Talking Tough to Tehran on Yemen

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States has reiterated his country’s position—that changing the name of its military operation in Yemen from “Operation Decisive Storm” to “Operation Renewed Hope” did not mean it was taking the use of force off the table:

“When the Houthis or their allies make aggressive moves there will be a response. The decision to calm matters now rests entirely with them,” ambassador Adel al-Jubeir told reporters.

He said Saudi forces, which were reported to have carried out at least 12 air strikes in southern Yemen on Wednesday, were ready to stop any Houthi advance into the port of Aden.

Despite yesterday’s talks of a ceasefire and hopes for a dialogue, tensions remain high. The Obama Administration has been at special pains to communicate how seriously it is taking Iranian provocations around Yemen, perhaps worried that Iran believes itself safe from reprisals while the nuclear negotiations are still going on.

An Iranian flotilla reportedly stocked with advanced weaponry set out for Aden over the weekend, prompting the United States to dispatch the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier, to the region earlier this week. President Obama said in an interview that sending the carrier was accompanied by a “very direct message” to Tehran not to arm the Houthis.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has since elaborated on that message. When asked whether the U.S. Navy vessels in the area would consider boarding the Iranian ships, he said, “We have options. We’re not at that point. We’re at the point of trying to get the parties back to the table.” With Iran clearly in mind, he added that “obviously fanning the flames or contributing to [the conflict in Yemen] by any party is not welcome to us.”

It’s a volatile situation that is a product of the Administration’s desire to try to disaggregate its regional policy into separate silos—the nuke deal, the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the standoff in Yemen. Even with Administration officials’ blunt statements and warnings, there is still plenty of room for miscalculation on the part of Tehran. The Obama Administration appears to have committed itself to balancing Iran’s ambitions by backing the Sunnis in the Gulf. Whether Tehran believes that or not is another question.

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