Both had been doing the kinds of work many of my students at SAIS aspire to. Weinstein, a former political science professor, was working for a USAID contractor on rural development projects. Lo Porto, who studied peace and conflict issues at London Metropolitan University, was working for a German non-governmental organization on restoring drinking water in a flooded rural area. Experienced operators, they both nevertheless fell victim to kidnappings and ended up in Al Qaeda hands. Weinstein was taken in August 2011 in Lahore. Lo Porto in January 2012.
There was a time when aid workers of this sort might have been left alone by belligerents. No longer. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in particular, but also other “jihadi” groups, have made a thriving business of kidnap and ransom. The Italian government is widely believed to be prepared to deal, even paying substantial ransoms. The American government would like it believed it does not deal and in particular does not pay ransoms. Neither approach yielded the desired result in these two cases.
Kidnapping is not only a business. Increasingly, jihadi groups see aid workers as helping their enemies to establish legitimacy by providing services to the poor. The good works Weinstein and Lo Porto were undertaking might be welcome to the villages where they were undertaken, but not to those who want to undermine and destroy the Pakistani state. Many aid organizations are concerned about this and try to keep all belligerents at more or less equal arm’s length, but that is hard to do when it comes to belligerents who don’t acknowledge anyone as “neutral” or “humanitarian.”
The jihadi presence has caused a vast increase in the protection required to conduct humanitarian operations in today’s war zones, which in turn reduces the credibility of the humanitarian claim and raises your value as a target. If your warehouses, homes and offices all have to be protected 24/7 by armed guards, you start looking like just one more belligerent, or like one more extension of state power. As a non-governmental civilian, this makes me generally more comfortable in a conflict zone outside the envelope of visible security than inside it. Moving from one zone to the other–through checkpoints–is often your most dangerous moment.
Weinstein was reportedly taken in Lahore after his residential guards accepted an offer of a free meal. The circumstances of Lo Porto’s kidnapping are unclear to me. But the point is this: it could happen to any tens of thousands of aid workers in dozens of fragile states around the world. Few nongovernmental organizations can provide a level of physical protection to individuals that will foil a concerted kidnapping attempt by half a dozen toughs. Once taken, a victim in at least a dozen of these countries can be sold on quickly to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.
The best defense is simply not to be at an expected place at the expected time. But strict adherence to that approach would make work on many development issues impossible. Everyone is working remotely to a greater extent than ever before, but it just isn’t possible to do a good job supervising or implementing aid projects, training people and providing advice without seeing the projects first hand and talking directly with the local implementers and beneficiaries.
It takes real courage and conviction to do what Weinstein and Lo Porto were doing. It should never be confused with careless adventure-seeking by those with no serious business in conflict zones. Nor should we blame for their deaths the drone operators and intelligence analysts who take on the enormous responsibility of trying to prevent collateral damage. It is the kidnappers who were responsible for Weinstein and Lo Porto being in the wrong place at the wrong time, no one else.
The people who do aid work in conflict zones merit our appreciation and support as much as those who serve in uniform. The risks they run and the sacrifices they make are far greater than they should be.
May their memory be a blessing.
Max Fisher offers Mike Doran a platform for his case against the nuclear deal with Iran. Here are ten ways in which Mike is mistaken:
1. MD: Detente is the strategic goal, and arms control is the means to achieve it.
President Obama has made it clear he would welcome a broader detente with Iran, but he has also made it clear the nuclear deal has to be judged on its own merits. I don’t see any evidence that he is prevaricating, but if that is Mike’s claim he should produce the support.
2. MD: I don’t think it [preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon] is achievable without a significant coercive component. I think this is one of the most faulty assumptions of the administration.
Trouble is, the Obama Administration does not make that faulty assumption. It has done much more than any prior administration to increase the sanctions pressure on Iran, far more than the Administration for which Mike worked.
3. MD: [The Iranians] want sanctions relief and they’re going to get it, and they see that they’re going to get it, and they will stick with this process as long as they get direct, immediate, and very desirable benefits from it.
That is precisely the point of the negotiations: to provide sanctions relief provided Tehran gives up its nuclear weapons ambitions for at least ten years and moves itself back from a “breakout” of two or three months to a “breakout” time of a year. This is not an argument against the deal. It’s an argument for it.
4. MD: In fact, the starting point is that the Iranians want hegemony in the region, and they’re reading American policy with respect to their regional aspirations. The goal of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not to defend against the United States or Israel — it’s to advance its regional agenda.
That’s right, and it is also a very good reason for halting Iran before it gets nuclear weapons. Again: a very good argument for the deal.
5. MD: I’m in favor of a vigorous containment program across the board, and I’m also in favor of a policy that says we have all options on the table and we mean it. The president says all options are on the table, but he doesn’t actually mean it, and I think we should mean it.
This confidence that his opponents know better than what the president says is laughable. The debate over destroying the Iranian nuclear program has clarified the limited gains it would provide: only two or three years of setback and an enormous incentive for Iran to redouble its efforts. But the notion that showing resolution by sabre-rattling would improve the prospects for a good deal is simply wrong.
6. MD: For a time the Iranians certainly believed all options were on the table. They abandoned their weaponization program, or they put it on hold, in 2003. Well, what happened in 2003? The United States went into Iraq, and I think they were probably very concerned at that point about all options being on the table.
The Iranians were concerned then about an American invasion, which is no longer a viable threat no matter who is president. But they spent the rest of the Bush Administration building and spinning thousands of more centrifuges, a fact Mike conveniently forgets.
7. MD: The very process of the negotiation is destroying the sanctions regime we established, which is the greatest nonmilitary instrument we have for coercing them.
This is laughable. The process of negotiation is absolutely vital to building and maintaining the multilateral sanctions regime. Without negotiations, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese would not be on board for sanctions.
8. MD: Iran’s status in the international community is going to be greatly improved, and then there’s going to be an international commercial lobby and a diplomatic-military lobby, which includes the Chinese and the Russians, in favor of the new order in which Iran is a citizen in good standing in the international community that they can do business with.
This is true, but misleading. That “international commercial lobby” already exists. If no agreement is reached, the sanctions are mincemeat. The notion that we can continue to hold on to them indefinitely is nonsense.
9. MD: The key question in that regard is, “When did he start to see Iran as a partner in Iraq?”
When the whole question of the status of forces agreement in Iraq was alive in 2010, [former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus and everybody are saying, “Keep forces on the ground in Iraq,” and the president had a different inclination. Well, if the United States is not going to be directly involved in Iraq, then who is going to protect our interests and protect stability in Iraq? And I think that, although he’s never admitted this, he assumed the Iranians would play that role for him.
I would say it was the Bush invasion of Iraq that gave Iran its big opening in Iraq. But leaving that aside: George W. Bush, not Barack Hussein Obama, negotiated the agreement for the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. It was signed before he left office. What Mike is talking about here is an attempt to renegotiate that agreement, which the Obama Administration did pursue. But the Iraqis weren’t willing to give the US juridiction over its troops in Iraq and we weren’t willing to stay without it.
10. MD: If the Iranian regime — and I do believe they are rational — were truly put before the choice, if Ali Khamenei was put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or absolutely crippling, debilitating economic sanctions,” he would think twice. I think if he were put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or severe military strikes,” he would think twice.
So how do you get those crippling economic sanctions, whichc have to be multilateral, if you are not also negotiating with Iran? Absolutely no realistic proposal.
Here at last, the true agenda: get us into war with Iran, but note no mention of the only temporary setback to the Iranian nuclear program (and consequently the need to intervene repeatedly every couple of years), no mention of the likelihood the Iranians would redouble the efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, no consideration of the impact on the world economy, or secondary consequences (relations with China, Russia, the Europeans, Iranian responses in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, maybe also Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE).
Here is the kicker: if you really want to go to war with Iran, you’ll be much better off doing it because they violated an agreement than just doing it. So a nuclear deal is a good idea if that is your objective as well.
I spoke at Harvard Friday about the Greece-Macedonia name dispute, along with Matt Nimetz and Boshk0 Stankovski. Here are the speaking notes I used.
1. Thank you for that kind introduction. The opportunity to speak at Harvard Law School is truly an honor. Harvard’s Project on Negotiation is a mecca for all who would like to see disputes managed peacefully.
2. That is what Matt Nimetz has done for more than 20 years. I am honored to meet him. We should not minimize his extraordinary achievement: an issue that in the early 1990s threatened to throw Macedonia into the Balkans cauldron with Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo has steadily lost its saliency.
3. I confess that I’ve even referred to it as the most boring dispute in the Balkans and therefore promise to speak less than 20 minutes more about it.
4. Let’s start with the obvious: this dispute is not really about the name. If it were, Greeks would long ago have accepted my citing the 1257 places in the United States that use the name “Macedonia” as dispositive. They would celebrate, not denigrate, the compliment from their neighbor.
5. Washington, DC was founded explicitly as the “new Rome.” I’ve never met an Italian who objected. The Italian government has even donated a few statues to beef up that image.
6. There were, however, already a lot of Americans dressed in togas adorning statuary hall in the Capitol, a building that is a blatant 18th-century attempt to imitate the glory of the ancients. Not to mention the National Gallery’s rip-off of the coffered ceiling of the Pantheon.
7. No, if this dispute were about the name and the statues, Greeks would be pleased that a non-Greek people who have come to occupy land that was once ancient Paeonia have adopted Greek antecedents as their ideal.
8. But if it is not about the name, what is it about? Read more
- Politics of a Nuclear Deal: Former U.S. & Iranian Officials Debate | Monday April 20 | 9:30 – 11:00 | USIP | REGISTER TO ATTEND | This event is the fourth in the Iran Forum series hosted by a coalition of eight think tanks, including USIP, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, RAND, the Arms Control Association, the Center for a New American Security, the Stimson Center, Partnership for a Secure America, and the Ploughshares Fund. Speakers include Ali-Akbar Mousavi, Former member of Iran’s parliament and Visiting Fellow at Virginia Tech, Jim Slattery, Former Congressman (D-KS), Howard Berman, Former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (D-CA) and Michael Singh, Former Senior Director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council and Senior Fellow, The Washington Institute. The discussion will be moderated by Stephen J. Hadley, Chairman of the Board, USIP, Chair, RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy Advisory Board and Former National Security Advisor.
- Turkey’s Role in a Turbulent Middle East | Monday April 20 | 2:30 – 3:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will address the country’s evolving policy toward the Middle East, including its role in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. He will also discuss Turkey’s relationship with the West and its responsibilities in NATO. George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will moderate.
- The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis: What Is to Be Done? | Tuesday April 21 | 9:30 – 12:00 | Middle East Policy Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Middle East Policy Council invites to the 80th Capitol Hill Conference. Live streaming of this event will begin at approximately 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 21st and conclude at noon. A questions and answers session will be held at the end of the proceedings. Refreshments will be served. The speakers include Karen AbuZayd, Former UN Under Secretary-General and Former Commissioner-General, UNRWA, Denis J. Sullivan, Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies, Co-Director, Middle East Center, Northeastern University, Susan M. Akram, Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law, and Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University. The conference will be moderated by Thomas R. Mattair, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council.
- Current State of Syrian Refugees in Turkey | Tuesday April 21 | 10:00 – 12:00 | The SETA Foundation |REGISTER TO ATTEND | The civil war has driven 6.5 million Syrians from their country; nearly 2 million now reside in Turkey. While Turkish refugee camps have garnered much attention due to their quality, the majority of Syrian refugees reside outside the camps. In urban areas, the government, aid agencies and NGOs struggle to meet the needs of an-ever growing number of refugees. Please join us for a panel discussion on the refugee crisis in Turkey and its impact on social, political and economic dynamics in the country. Speakers include Fuat Oktay, President, Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, AFAD, Kemal Kirisci, TÜSİAD Senior Fellow and Director of Turkey Project, The Brookings Institution, Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director, SETA DC and Daryl Grisgraber, Senior Advocate, Refugees International. The discussion will be moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director, SETA DC.
- Building Peace in Libya: A Conversation with Wafa Bugaighis | Tuesday April 21 | 3:00 – 4:00 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As the conflict between Libya’s political factions drags on, its humanitarian and economic crisis deepens. Meanwhile, the Islamic State is exploiting the vacuum wrought by the fighting and the absence of coherent, capable institutions. What are the prospects for a ceasefire and the formation of an inclusive, sustainable government? Wafa Bugaighis, the charge d’affaires and highest-ranking diplomat at the Libyan Embassy in Washington, will offer her vision for ending the war and discuss how the international community can help rebuild Libya. Carnegie’s Frederic Wehrey will moderate.
- Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? | Tuesday April 21 | 5:00 – 7:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The past few years have marked the beginning of a tumultuous period for global governance. Across the world, we have seen threats to international order and a disruption of longstanding political norms and values as authoritarians get smarter and persist undeterred. With authoritarianism on the rise in many of the world’s most strategically important regions, new questions emerge regarding the diffusion of power, the rise of sometimes violent nonstate actors, and the future role of the nation-state. Developing an appropriate strategy for the advancement of human rights and the support of nonviolent civil resistance movements is thus proving to be one of the most challenging policy dilemmas for the United States and other democracies.On April 21, the Atlantic Council will be hosting a public discussion of these challenges in recognition of the release of its forthcoming publication, Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? This discussion will feature multiple leading experts on nonviolent civil resistance and authoritarian states, and will explore the range of issues and case-studies examined within this book of essays. Atlantic Council CEO and President Mr. Frederick Kempe will begin by moderating a discussion on countering authoritarianism between Dr. Peter Ackerman, Dr. Paula Dobriansky, and Mr. Damon Wilson. This will be followed by a discussion of the issues raised in the book itself, featuring Adm. Dennis Blair (USN, Ret.), Dr. George A. Lopez, and Dr. Regine Spector, moderated by Dr. Mathew Burrows and Dr. Maria J. Stephan.
- Escaping the Cycle of Stagnation in the Middle East | Wednesday April 22 | 10:00 – 5:00 | SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Global Security & Conflict Management Club and MENA Club of Johns Hopkins’ SAIS invite to a conference on the social, political and economic challenges facing the current Middle East. The conference will be opened with a keynote address by Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy at the Middle East Institute. Following the address, the conference will proceed with three panels. The first panel will discuss civil society in Syria. Speakers include Mohammad Ghanem, Director of Government Relations, Syrian American CounciI, Ibrahim Al-Assil, President, Syrian Non Violence Movemement, Mohammad Al Abdallah, Executive Director, Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre, Nidal Bitari, Palestinian Refugee Writer and Hind Kabawat, Lawyer and Syrian Activist. The second panel will discuss migration, displacement, and patterns of protracted crises in the Middle East, featuring Mona Yacoubian, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East, Rochelle Davis, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Matthew Reynolds. Director, UNRWA Representative Office, Washington, DC. The panel will be moderated by Elizabeth Ferris, Co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement. The third panel will focus on economic reform and development in the MENA region. Panelists include Lili Mottaghi, Economist in the Chief Economist Office for the Middle East and North Africa Region, The World Bank, Dr. Diane Singerman, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs, American University, and Co-Director, TADAMUN: The Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative and Amy Ekdawi, Middle East & North Africa Program Director, The Bank Information Center. Lunch will be served.
- Examining U.S.-Israel Relations at a Time of Change in the Middle East | Wednesday April 22 | 10:30 – 1:00 | Center for a New American Security | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The U.S.-Israel relationship has been a centerpiece of U.S. Middle East strategy and a main pillar of Israel’s national security strategy for decades. But political relations between the two countries during the past six years have seen some turbulence, even as security cooperation deepens and they continue to share common interests and values at a time of change and uncertainty in the Middle East. On April 22, please join the Center for American Progress, the Center for a New American Security, and the Israel Institute to take stock of where we are at this crucial stage in U.S.-Israel relations, featuring two expert panels. The first panel will discuss the management of U.S.-Israel relations, and the second will focus on the main issues under discussion between the two states. Speakers include Rudy deLeon, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, Mel Levine (D-CA), Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution, Michael J. Koplow, Program Director, Israel Institute, Dan Arbell, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution and Scholar in Residence, Department of History, College of Arts & Sciences, American University, Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, Director of Arab-Israeli Programs, U.S. Institute of Peace, Michael Singh, Lane-Swig, Senior Fellow and Managing Director, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, Visiting Fellow, Center for American Progress. Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress and Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security will moderate the first and second panels respectively.
- Turkey: Still a U.S. Ally? | Thursday April 23 | Bipartisan Policy Center | 3:00 – 4:30 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Foreign policy divergences and increasingly worrying developments in Turkey’s domestic policy are raising questions about the strength of the U.S.-Turkish partnership. Turkey and the United States remain divided on their approach to Syria, the ISIS threat, and turmoil in the region more broadly. Meanwhile, crackdowns on media and the passage of draconian new security legislation are jeopardizing fundamental freedoms in Turkey as the country heads for parliamentary elections this summer. Should the United States continue to look to Turkey as a strategic partner in this environment? Join the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) for the release of a new paper on the state of the U.S.-Turkish alliance and a discussion of Turkey’s domestic political struggles, foreign policy and implications for its relationship with the United States. The discussion features Amb. Eric Edelman, Co-chair, BPC’s Turkey Initiative and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Dr. Svante Cornell, Member, BPC’s Turkey Initiative and Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and Amb. James Holmes, Former President, American-Turkish Council. Blaise Misztal, Director, BPC’s National Security Program, will moderate.
- An overlooked crisis: Humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Libya | Friday April 24 | 10:00 – 11:30 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | With international attention focused on the humanitarian emergencies in Syria and Iraq, the escalating crisis in Libya has gone overlooked. With the vast majority of international actors having pulled out of Libya in the summer of 2014, humanitarian assistance for needy populations is in short supply, and solutions to the crisis seem far from sight. On April 24, the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement will convene a discussion on the humanitarian consequences of the violence in Libya, focusing on the implications for those in Libya and for the country’s neighbors. Brookings Nonresident Fellow Megan Bradley will draw on recent research on Libya’s displacement crisis. Speakers will also include Kais Darragi of the Embassy of the Republic of Tunisia and Shelly Pitterman of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow and co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement will moderate the event and offer opening remarks.
- What’s Wrong with the Proposed Nuclear Deal with Iran? | Friday April 24 | 12:00 – 1:30 | Hudson Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | This month, the White House announced the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran, with details to be finalized by the end of June. For all of the technical details that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is intended to establish, the foundational political agreements—the reason for the meetings at Lausanne—seem unclear. What can American policymakers expect next? Will the White House continue to make concessions as it has since the November 2013 interim agreement when it acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium? Or is there a way to ensure the administration gets a better deal than the framework unveiled earlier this month? What are the implications of the deal for U.S. national security, as well as our interests and allies in the Middle East? On April 24th, Hudson Institute will host a lunchtime panel of experts to discuss where the administration’s Iran policy will go from here. The panel will include Michael Doran, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, Matthew Kroenig, Associate Professor, Georgetown University and Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council, David Samuels, Contributor, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. Lee Smith, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, will moderate.
The big news from Iraq today is the alleged death in Tikrit of “King of Clubs” IzzatIbrahim al-Douri, who is believed to have led the Ba’athistNaqshbandi Army. He was a key figure in the alliance of the Ba’athists with the Islamic State. It’s anyone’s guess how his death will affect that alliance. It is even possible he is not yet dead. It wouldn’t be the first false report of its type.
If he is dead, it is reasonable to hope that tension will grow between two groups with different goals: the Ba’athists aim to restore dictatorship in Iraq, while the Islamic State aims to destroy Iraq and install on the territory it takes there and elsewhere an Islamic caliphate. Those goals may overlap for a time, but ultimately they are incompatible. Rumors of tension were already rife. Might al-Douri’s death aggravate the friction between the two groups?
It’s possible, but rarely has the disappearance of one leader or another in the recent Middle East wars meant a decisive turn. The Islamic State (then in Iraq) survived the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 and eventually revived. The later years of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship had already seen a good deal of Islamicization. The Islamic State long ago adopted Saddam’s “Republic of Fear” strategies: killing, often without reason, to cow the general population into submission.
It is also possible that the Ba’athists and Islamic State will recognize the threat that disunity poses, reconsolidate their alliance and reconfigure their forces to defend better the territory they still control. ISIS forces are even advancing on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and an important outpost still under Baghdad’s control. Whether they succeed in that effort or not, the Islamic State and its Ba’athist allies are still far from defeat.
The center of gravity in this war is still the Sunni population. ISIS and Ba’athist success would not have been possible without both passive and active support from Sunnis in Ninewa, Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in Washington this week has done his best to reassure the Obama Administration that he understands that, but he also remains heavily dependent on Shia “popular mobilization” forces, who fight harder and better than the Iraqi Army and are linked to political parties that support Abadi’s coalition government. But using Shia forces in predominantly Sunni Anbar and mixed Ninewa will push Sunnis there in the direction of ISIS and the Ba’athists.
This war isn’t over yet.
Yesterday’s contretemps between Iraq’s Prime Minister Abadi and the Saudi Ambassador will blow over quickly in the American press even if it made headlines today. But the issues involved are serious ones.
What Abadi said (according to the New York Times) was this:
There is no logic to the operation at all in the first place. Mainly, the problem of Yemen is within Yemen.
He apparently added that the Obama Administration
want[s] to stop this conflict as soon as possible. What I understand from the Administration, the Saudis are not helpful on this. They don’t want a cease-fire now.
And he also said:
The dangerous thing is we don’t know what the Saudis want to do after this. Is Iraq within their radar? That’s very, very dangerous. The idea that you intervene in another state unprovoked just for regional ambition is wrong. Saddam has done it before. See what it has done to the country.
The Saudis responded that there was “no logic” in what Abadi said.
But of course there is.
Let’s look at Yemen first. Its many conflicts undoubtedly originated within Yemen, though they all have international echoes. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in Yemen for a long time. It is arguable that the Saudi Arabian involvement, including the widely supported Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-arranged transition from former President Saleh to President Hadi, was far deeper.
It should not be surprising that the Iranians took advantage of the opportunity the (sort of) Shia Houthis gave them when they chased GCC-supported Hadi from Sanaa. Tehran shipped arms and money to the Houthis, which in turn provoked the Saudi escalation. That’s the short version of how an intra-Yemeni fight has become a regional one, with sectarian overtones.
It is not at all clear that escalation is producing a result anyone can call positive. Today the UN mediator, who had been successful until the Houthis rained on his parade, resigned. Now Yemen is a basket case. Only when Saudi Arabia and Iran come to terms and agree on a political outcome is the fighting likely to stop. In the meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is presumably taking advantage of the American withdrawal to enjoy the respite and expand its operations.
What about Abadi’s fear of Saudi intervention in Iraq? He is not wrong to recall Saddam Hussein, who went to war against both Iran and Kuwait “for regional ambition.” But he might have turned his warning against not only Saudi Arabia but also against Iran, whose regional ambitions are no less grand. After all, Iranian forces are already fighting not only in Iraq, where Abadi welcomes their support against the Islamic State, but also in Syria where a president who has lost legitimacy is doing precious little against the Islamic State.
Abadi’s blindness to Iranian trouble-making is regrettable. He owes them, but not enough to ignore their misbehavior in Syria or to disrupt the slow rapprochement Iraq has been enjoying with Saudi Arabia. He could have said nothing about future Saudi behavior. It isn’t enough to be right. You also have to be judicious.