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Testimony

Resolving the Conflict in Yemen: U.S. Interests, Risks, and Policy

Testimony for Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
9th March 2017

Download the full testimony here. 

Senator Corker and other members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen. Unfortunately, I do not see a way that this conflict can be resolved any time soon. Yemen is rife with internal divisions, which are exacerbated by the proxy war being waged by several actors. Arab states, Iran, and others see Yemen as a key battleground in their contest for regional power. In addition, al Qaeda has taken advantage of the crisis to pursue its chief objective, which is seizing territory and building an emirate inside the country.

I discuss these various actors in my written testimony below and look forward to answering your questions.

The Iranian-backed Houthi offensive has significantly undermined U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Governance in Yemen has been a longstanding problem. But the Houthi offensive in late 2014 knocked President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from power at a time when the U.S. was counting on his government to act as a vital counterterrorism partner.

There is a debate over how close the Houthis and Iran really are. Some have argued that the Houthis should not be thought of as an Iranian terror proxy, such as Hezbollah. While this accurate – the Houthis have their own culture and traditions – there is no question that Iran and the Houthis are allies. And it is in Iran’s interest to work with the Houthis against Saudi-backed forces in Yemen, while also encouraging Houthi incursions into the Saudi kingdom.

The U.S. government has long recognized Iran as one of the Houthis’ two key backers. (The other being former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his network, which is discussed below.) In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, the State Department noted:[1]

Iran actively supported members of the Houthi tribe in northern Yemen, including activities intended to build military capabilities, which could pose a greater threat to security and stability in Yemen and the surrounding region. In July 2012, the Yemeni Interior Ministry arrested members of an alleged Iranian spy ring, headed by a former member of the IRGC.

That warning proved to be accurate, as the Houthis made significant gains just over two years later. The U.S. and its allies have intercepted multiple Iranian arms shipments reportedly intended for the Houthis.[2] And senior U.S. officials have repeatedly referenced Iran’s ongoing assistance. Late last year, Reuters reported that “Iran has stepped up weapons transfers to the Houthis,” including “missiles and small arms.”[3]

In September 2015, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter listed America’s “core interests in the region.” Among them, according to Carter, was “supporting Saudi Arabia in protecting its territory and people from Houthi attacks, and supporting international efforts to prevent Iranian shipments of lethal equipment from reaching Houthi and Saleh-affiliated forces in Yemen.”[4] The Houthis have responded by launching missiles at American ships, as well as ships operated by other countries.


[1] U.S. Department of State, “Chapter 3: State Sponsors of Terrorism Overview,” Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, May 30, 2013. (https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2012/209985.htm)

[2] See: “U.S. Navy says it seized weapons from Iran likely bound for Houthis in Yemen,” Reuters, April 4, 2016. (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-usa-yemen-arms-idUSKCN0X12DB)

[3] Yara Bayoumy and Phil Stewart, “Exclusive: Iran steps up weapons supply to Yemen's Houthis via Oman – officials,” Reuters, October 20, 2016. (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-iran-idUSKCN12K0CX)

[4] Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, “Statement on U.S. Policy and Strategy in the Middle East before the House Armed Services Committee,” House Armed Services Committee Hearing, June 17, 2015. (https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/606680