U.S.-Iran Clash Over Yemen Highly Likely, Crisis Group Warns

(Bloomberg) -- Yemen is the riskiest flashpoint between the U.S. and Iran at a time when tensions between the two powers are at a “critical level,” the International Crisis Group conflict-resolution center said.

Overlapping Middle East conflicts increase the potential for intentional or inadvertent clashes, the group said in a report released Thursday. An escalation in Yemen, such as a successful strike by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on a Saudi or Emirati city, could prompt Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E or even the U.S. to retaliate against Iran, the group said.

Reasons the fighting in Yemen threatens to escalate and draw in the U.S., according to International Crisis Group:

  • The Houthis’ killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the military defeat of his backers in Sana’a, stoked tensions between the former allies just when Saleh seemed set to switch sides. That shift may have offered Saudi Arabia a way out of the conflict, which they entered in March 2015
  • After Saleh’s death, some of his loyalists may stand by the Houthis because of a shared hostility to the Saudi-led military campaign
  • The Houthis’ growing military capability, evidenced by their attempted missile strike on the international airport in the Saudi capital last month, raises the political stakes and costs to Saudi Arabia. It also means other Gulf cities could also soon be within the rebels’ target range
  • A U.S. strike on Iranian assets in Yemen, to back American allies, may see Iran increase its support for the Houthis or retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria
  • Iran could retaliate directly against the U.S. if attacked by a third party, though a direct response “is far less probable” if strikes were to emanate from a U.S. warship
  • The extent of Iran’s role in arming or controlling the Houthis is unclear because they have ignored Iran’s advice on significant decisions in the past. This means Iran could “pay a price for actions by an allied group it does not control”
  • U.S. attempts to undermine the Iran nuclear deal could prompt Iran or its proxies, to target U.S. interests in the region; an Israeli strike against targets in Syria could provoke retaliation from Iran’s ally, Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah movement

“Intersecting crises significantly increase the possibility of an intentional or inadvertent, direct or indirect confrontation” between Iran and the U.S., with ‘catastrophic’ consequences, the report said.

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