American interests in Yemen are currently centered around limiting Iranian influence, ensuring safe oil transit, and maintaining the security of Saudi Arabia. Secondary interests include counterterrorism, human rights, and overall stability in the Middle East. A brief look at the history of US-Yemeni relations will show how these interests have evolved.
Yemen became particularly important to the United States after 9/11, when America needed Arab cooperation on counterterrorism. America continued to view Yemen through the lens of terrorism throughout the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, when the United States backed President Hadi’s government. A stable Yemen would mean less terrorism, and the continuation of a republican government on the Arabian Peninsula would hopefully better secure human rights and prosperity (Lackner 2018, 22-23). In 2014, however, the country descended into civil war, with the Houthis advancing in the north and eventually capturing the capital, Sana’a. Since 2015, American administrations have had to subordinate counterterrorism priorities to more effectively support the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis (Exum 2017).
The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has prioritized limiting Iranian influence, maintaining Saudi security, and ensuring safe oil transit around the Arabian Peninsula (the Bush administration, with no war in Yemen to handle, was free to focus on counterterrorism) (Exum 2017).
Limiting Iranian Influence
The United States has an interest in preventing and limiting Iranian influence in the Middle East. Iran’s presence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq is meant to work directly against American goals in those countries and places American personnel at risk. Moreover, the Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon threatens Israel, a primary ally of the United States. A Shia-dominated Iraq, along with Iran itself, threatens Saudi Arabia, another historically close partner of the United States. Iranian aggression expands conflict in the Middle East, increases terrorism, and threatens oil transport.
This logic has been extended to the current conflict in Yemen. The United States has been long aware of Iranian involvement with the Houthis. Though the connections between Iran and the Houthis have been difficult to independently verify, there have been reports of Houthi fighters training with Hezbollah in Lebanon, IRGC leaders arriving and staying in Yemen, and Houthis traveling to Iran for training. There are indications that money and weapons are being transferred from Iran to the Houthis, and the Saudis have recovered Houthi drones based off Iranian designs (Bayoumy and Ghobari 2014; Gatopoulos 2019; LaGrone 2016). Increased Iranian ties with the Houthis makes the Houthis more effective against the Saudis and Iranian transfer of anti-ship missiles decreases the American naval advantage off the Arabian Peninsula (Exum 2017). All this poses a threat to the transport of oil in Bab al-Mandeb strait.
The United States has an interest in maintaining Saudi security because the kingdom’s security goes hand in hand with the threat of Iran. Moreover, the United States believes Saudi security is tied to the stability of global oil markets. Supporting the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis helps the Saudis counter a direct threat on their border that has the potential to disrupt oil transit and give Iran a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, just as it has done in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The United States has longstanding interests in maintaining the free transit of oil from the Persian Gulf to its various destinations around the world, including its allies (Toprani 2019). Though the United States is not reliant on Persian Gulf imports, the free movement of oil in the Persian Gulf is central to the prosperity of the world economy, upon which much of America’s power is based. An increase in Houthi and Iranian influence in the Middle East threatens American influence over the economy of the Middle East.
Though the United States also has interests in counterterrorism, human rights, and overall stability in the Middle East, it has chosen to prioritize limiting Iranian influence, strengthening Saudi security, and ensuring the safe transit of oil in an effort to prevent either a protracted conflict on the Arabian Peninsula or a resolution that is against American interests. Though there is certainly a debate over what American interests are in the Yemeni conflict, the interests discussed above are those the American government has chosen to focus its resources on.
Bayoumy, Yara and Mohammed Ghobari. 2014. “Iranian Support Seen Crucial for Yemen’s Houthis.” Reuters. 15 December. Accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-houthis-iran-insight/iranian-support-seen-crucial-for-yemens-houthis-idUSKBN0JT17A20141215
Exum, Andrew. 2017. “What’s Really at Stake for American in Yemen’s Conflict.” The Atlantic. 14 April. Accessed at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/04/yemen-trump-aqap/522957/
Gatopoulos, Alex. 2019. “Houthi Drone Attacks in Saudi ‘Show New Level of Sophistication.’” Al-Jazeera. 15 May. Accessed at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/houthi-drone-attacks-saudi-show-level-sophistication-190515055550113.html
Lackner, Helen. 2018. “The GCC, Iran and Yemen: An Overview of Relations.” In Yemen and the Gulf States: The Making of a Crisis, ed. Helen Lackner and Daniel Martin Varisco. Gerlach Press: Berlin, Germany.
LaGrone, Sam. 2016. “U.S. Navy Seizes Suspected Iranian Arms Shipment Bound for Yemen.” USNI News. 4 April. Accessed at https://news.usni.org/2016/04/04/u-s-navy-seizes-suspected-iranian-arms-shipment-bound-for-yemen
Toprani, Anand. 2019. “Oil and the Future of U.S. Strategy in the Persian Gulf.” War on the Rocks. 15 May. Accessed at https://warontherocks.com/2019/05/oil-and-the-future-of-u-s-strategy-in-the-persian-gulf/