THE LEVANT – The capturing of Yemen’s capital by a Shiite militia in September is stoking alarm in Arab capitals that Iran is using the conflict to widen its power in the Middle East, according to senior Arab and U.S. officials.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Persian Gulf states have been privately calling for the Obama administration to more aggressively work to weaken the rebel army’s hold over San’a and other territories of Yemen, according to these officials.
These Arab governments are concerned Washington is too preoccupied with the rise of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq and its ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran to respond forcefully.
“No one seems to be noticing what has happened in Yemen,” said a senior Arab official involved in discussions about the rebellion in the country. “It doesn’t seem to be on the radar screen.”
Rulers of five of the six Sunni Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf held an extraordinary meeting in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on Sunday night to discuss Yemen and other regional hot spots, according to Arab officials. They pledged to form a more united front against Islamic State and to try and restore stability in Yemen.
Yemen has posed a policy dilemma for the Obama administration in recent years due to the twin threats of international terrorism and sectarian conflict.
The U.S. has largely focused on combating the international terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has plotted a string of attacks on the U.S. homeland. AQAP has also launched cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia.
But Washington has also tracked what American officials said has been a significant amount of Iranian arms support for a Yemeni rebel army known as the Houthis, which adheres to a minority sect of Shiite Islam.
The Houthis seized control of San’a in September and have since entered into a power-sharing agreement with Yemen’s government. Neighboring Arab states believe the Houthis are set on eventually taking control of Yemen.
Iran’s government has denied arming the Houthis, but Iranian officials and media personalities have made triumphant statements about the fall of San’a.
“We in the axis of resistance are the new sultans of the Mediterranean and the Gulf,”Mohammed Sadeq al-Hosseini, an adviser to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, told Lebanese media last month. “We in Tehran, Damascus, [Hezbollah’s] southern suburb of Beirut, Baghdad, and San’a will shape the map of the region. We are the new sultans of the Red Sea as well.”
U.S. officials have denied ignoring Yemen, and said the administration is working to stabilize the country.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and two senior Houthi military commanders for allegedly seeking to destabilize Yemen.
“The U.S. government and the international community fully support Yemen as it works to implement its economic reform agenda, achieve effective governance and secure a more representative future,” said David Cohen, undersecretary of Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.