Trump’s New Approach to Iran: Allow Others to Fight Them

President Donald Trump has found his own way to put pressure on Iran, and it involves the civil war in Yemen and $205 million in previously frozen funds. The conflict, which has been going on for over two years, is essentially a proxy war being fought by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The release of those funds strengthens our allies in Saudi Arabia and could serve as a counter to Iran’s influence across the Middle East.

The Situation in Yemen

To understand what the Trump administration is doing and why, it’s important to understand the situation he inherited when he came into office.

Yemen has been the site of political violence for years, especially as its rate of firearms per capita increased. It’s now ranks second only to the United States when it comes to the most heavily armed countries per capita, and its citizens have access to everything from powerful handguns to AK-47s, shotguns and even anti-aircraft weapons.

Yemen’s civil war began in 2015, and Saudi military forces soon intervened by bombing many areas of the country to help fight the Houthi rebels. At that time, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia had worsened due to the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.

In part to repair relations with Saudi Arabia, Barack Obama agreed to support them and their allies by refueling the planes they had bombing Yemen, along with giving them intelligence and weapons.

Obama was able to do this because of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorizes the president to use force against essentially any party determined to have been involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks in any way. It’s a broad authorization that gives the president quite a bit of leeway regarding use of force, and the United States has been using it for over a decade as the basis for air attacks striking al-Qaeda bases throughout Yemen.

President Trump Has Taken a More Aggressive Stance Towards Iran

Although President Trump has also used the AUMF as the basis for support towards Saudi Arabia and its allies, he has been much more aggressive towards Iran than Obama ever was. Obama supported Saudi Arabian forces reluctantly, in large part because of the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration was responsible for freezing the $205 million the Yemeni administration had, which was done to try and convince the warring parties to come to an agreement and stop the fighting.

President Trump, on the other hand, has been a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal and has made it clear he wants to prevent Iranian influence from extending further. He has accused Iran of financing terror and being a major cause of the extremists in the Middle East. He even threatened to tear up the Iran nuclear deal.

By unfreezing that $205 million, Trump has given the Yemeni administration the opportunity to pay debts and salaries. More importantly, it’s a show of support for Saudi Arabia and its allies.

This is just one way the United States has helped the Yemeni central bank this year, as it also assisted the bank in once again making international financial transfers. At the same time, the U.S. Treasury has been sanctioning Iranian companies and individuals.

Both U.S. officials and the deputy governor of foreign banking operations at the Yemeni central bank have noticed the shift in U.S. policy since Trump took over. The Obama administration was pushing hard to get peace talks going, even when neither side wanted to give an inch.

The Trump administration has shifted focus to stopping Iran and the groups it supports. The United States is supporting those fighting Iran and its forces without joining the fray directly.

Opinions Are Mixed on U.S. Involvement in Yemen

The United States’ backing of Saudi Arabia has been effective, but it isn’t without its detractors. News outlets and politicians have criticized the United States for supporting Saudi Arabia as it bombs Yemen, citing humanitarian concerns as Yemeni citizens die, go without food and suffer from a cholera outbreak.

Senator Chris Murphy called the situation a humanitarian nightmare during a Senate meeting. The House of Representatives also voted against this U.S. support of Saudi Arabia being justified under the AUMF, passing a non-binding resolution by a margin of 366-30. In doing so, the House of Representatives clarifies that the AUMF authorizes operations against al-Qaeda and its allied terrorist groups, but not the Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen.

While the passing of that resolution shows that there are plenty against U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war, it’s more of a symbolic gesture than a policy change. It calls for the United States to do what it can to avoid civilian casualties and ensure the citizens of Yemen have access to humanitarian services, but it doesn’t put an end to U.S. support of Saudi Arabia.

Regardless of this resolution, the United States is likely to remain involved with Yemen’s civil war for the foreseeable future. Countering Iran is clearly a point of emphasis for the Trump administration, and the stakes of this conflict are far too high.

If the Houthi rebels gain control of Yemen, it would be bad for Saudi Arabia, the United States and the citizens of Yemen. What can be forgotten with all the attention paid to the nation’s humanitarian crises is its ongoing media war. Yemen lacks press freedom, has an extremely low internet penetration of just 14 percent and has quite a bit of propaganda. The area could end up a hotbed for even more extremist groups.

What the innocent people of Yemen are going through is horrific, but the solution isn’t for the United States to abandon its allies. It doesn’t appear either side is ready for the peaceful resolution Obama wanted, and Trump’s strategy of supporting those against Iran is the best move right now.

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