In Yemen, U.S. Struggles To Navigate Complex Sectarian Landscape

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The U.S. is backing the Arab intervention in Yemen, which is seen as Saudi Arabia's attempt to beat back Iranian influence.

The U.S. is backing the Arab intervention in Yemen, which is seen as Saudi Arabia's attempt to beat back Iranian influence. But it's not so easy to look at Yemen and other conflicts in the region as Shia vs. Sunni or Islamists vs. non-Islamists.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The United States is speeding up arms shipments to Saudi Arabia as that country leads a military intervention in Yemen. The conflict there is seen by some as a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran. Other analysts say the reality is far more complex. They say the U.S. must carefully consider the many layers of this crisis before becoming further involved. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The way Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington describes the conflict in Yemen is clear-cut. Adel al-Jubeir says this is about curbing Iranian influence.

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ADEL AL-JUBEIR: Our objectives in Yemen are very simple - protect the legitimate government of Yemen and protect the people of Yemen from a takeover by a radical group that is allied with Iran and Hezbollah.

KELEMEN: He told a recent forum on Capitol Hill that Iran has been shipping weapons to Houthi rebels for a long time and stoking sectarian tensions not just in Yemen, but throughout the region.

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AL-JUBEIR: We don't look at it from a perspective of Sunni-versus-Shia. We look at it from the perspective of good-versus-evil.

KELEMEN: That's the sort of narrative that plays well in Washington, but at that same forum, one Yemeni analyst, Sama'a Al-Hamdani, says it's far too simplified.

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SAMA'A AL-HAMDANI: Although Americans try very hard to understand Yemen, Yemen is a very remote location. It's a very different culture.

KELEMEN: And she says everyone should study the country's past.

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AL-HAMDANI: And I really do recommend to look at Yemen's history not just in the past four years, not just in the past 20 years. I would say to look really, really back. We are tribes by nature, and we do take pride in our genealogy and whatever vendetta we have from 50 years ago could still apply to this day.

KELEMEN: There are tribal disputes across the Middle East and North Africa. There are other conflicts as well. Islamist versus secularists, Sunni extremists, like ISIS and Shia militants backed by Iran. Layered on the top is the long-standing regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia as Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution explains.

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TAMARA WITTES: Right now and over the last several years as the region's been upended - uprisings, civil conflict - it's created a lot of opportunities for each side in this power struggle to use these arenas of chaos to jockey for advantage, and it's also given them more incentive to do so. And so this conflict has heated up in a number of places.

KELEMEN: Just look at Lebanon, she says, or post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, Bahrain or Libya. In each, there are many local players with their own ambitions, and she says the U.S. can't just jump in on one side or another for ideological reasons as the U.S. did in conflicts across the globe during the Cold War.

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WITTES: What do you want to be the fate of a place like Syria or Libya? If stability in the Middle East is a core American interest - and it is - then you cannot simply engage with these conflicts in a way that exacerbates them or leaves them to rage on.

KELEMEN: The nuclear framework agreement with Iran is meant to take away one potential new threat, an Iranian bomb. And State Department spokesperson Marie Harf says the U.S. is trying to reassure Arab allies about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIE HARF: An Iran backed up by a nuclear weapon would be more able to project power in the region.

KELEMEN: But there are different schools of thought on how a nuclear deal could affect Iranian behavior. Wittes, who runs the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, says it's possible that in order to accept a deal, hardliners will get a freer hand and more money through sanctions relief to support destabilizing forces in the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WITTES: So I actually suspect that a nuclear deal, if it's achieved, might stave off that one very scary, very destabilizing development. But it might have the effect of exacerbating other problems with Iranian behavior in the region.

KELEMEN: And increase the anxiety of the Saudis and others who want U.S. backing, and not just in Yemen. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.