What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

What’s driving Saudi airstrikes in Yemen?

Yemen has become the latest flashpoint in a long conflict between Tehran and Riyadh for regional dominance. What do the new developments mean for an already smoldering Sunni-Shia split in the Middle East? Judy Woodruff talks to David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy and Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Joining me now to shed some light on what these new developments mean for the already smoldering Sunni-Shia split in that region are David Rothkopf. He's editor and CEO of "Foreign Policy" magazine. And Trita Parsi, he's president of the National Iranian American Council and author of "Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy With Iran."

    And welcome to both of you.

  • TRITA PARSI, National Iranian American Council:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David Rothkopf, what prompted the Saudis and their allies to get involved militarily? Al-Qaida has been causing unrest in Yemen for some time. What's different now?

  • DAVID ROTHKOPF, Foreign Policy:

    Well, I think what's different now is the rise of the Houthis, the gradual takeover of a very significant portion of the country, the fact they're allied with Iran, which, as you noted, is the principal rival of the Saudis in the region, and the fact that Yemen has a very long border with Saudi Arabia, so that if, in fact, this country became a satellite of the Iranians, it would pose a real strategic threat to the Saudis.

    I also think the other thing that's driving it is that the Saudis and the GCC countries, the Egyptians and the others that are involved, don't really feel that the United States or any other foreign power is going to have the ability to help stabilize this. And so they had to take some action on their own.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Trita Parsi, is — would a Houthi takeover in Yemen pose a strategic threat to Saudi Arabia?

  • TRITA PARSI, President, National Iranian American Council:

    Well, absolutely.

    I think the panic you have seen in Saudi Arabia is to some extent understandable in their rivalry with the Iranians. Twenty years ago, the Saudis essentially had encircled Iran. They were funding the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were funding elements in Pakistan. They were funding most of the Wahhabi mosques that were built in Central Asia. And Iran was also checked by Saddam Hussein.

    Twenty years later, it's pretty much the opposite. Iran has more influence in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in Syria than the Saudis do. And now the Iranians also have a foothold right in Saudi Arabia's backyard in Yemen. It's not difficult to understand that they're panicking, but the question is whether what they're doing right now is actually going to be able to advance their interests.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And what do you think?

  • TRITA PARSI:

    Well, I think what you have — the problem you have in the Middle East right now is that you have a significant diplomacy deficit.

    We're not going to be able to see any stabilization in Syria or in Yemen unless the Saudis and the Iranians find a way to be able to talk to each other, rather than to fight each other through proxies.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, I want to ask you about that, David Rothkopf. But you did mention that the Saudis worry that the U.S. and others wouldn't be willing to stand up to Iran. The U.S. is supporting the Saudi effort, though, aren't they?

  • DAVID ROTHKOPF:

    Well, in theory, they're supporting them, although your clip a minute ago noted that the senior U.S. general didn't really know what the Saudis were up.

    Meanwhile, yesterday, despite the administration's statements to the contrary, the U.S. actually was flying air support missions for the Iraqis. And the Iraqis, of course, in their fight against ISIS are very close aligned to the Iranians. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, we're negotiating with the Iranians on a nuclear deal that many, including the Saudis, see as a potential rapprochement with the Iranians.

    And so we seem to be on both sides of this, and that, of course, is one of the reasons that the Saudis are extremely uncomfortable right now, as are essentially all of our other traditional allies in the region.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And that's what makes this hard to understand, Trita Parsi.

    Let's look at it from the other perspective, from the Iranian perspective. How committed are they to the Houthi rebels? How involved are they in Yemen?

  • TRITA PARSI:

    It's not clear how committed they are, if this is just something that they're doing to essentially punish the Saudis, because there is a sentiment in Iran that the Saudis have been going out after Iran for quite some time.

    The sanctions against Iranian oil would never have been successful had it not been for the Saudis replacing Iranian oil on the markets. The Saudi support for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq that really started the sectarian fight, all of these things, the Iranians believe, have been done by the Saudis against Iran without carrying much of a cost for the Saudis.

    If this is just something to punish the Saudis, the commitment may not be that extensive. It's part of either a larger strategic move by the Iranians or an effort to be able to further come across as a protectorate of all Shiite populations in the region, then the commitment is probably going to be a bit stronger.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How do you see Iranian intentions, David Rothkopf?

  • DAVID ROTHKOPF:

    Well, I think it's clearly part of a strategy.

    The past couple years of chaos in the Middle East have benefited the Iranians more than any other country, as Trita noted, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, with Hamas in Israel. They are standing to gain. And right now, if they end up with a deal that relieves sanction, allows them to get a little bit more cash in their pockets, they can strengthen their hold on the region and end up considerably stronger at the end of this.

    And the Saudis and the others do not see the same kind of opportunities for them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, what about that? And do you see this — Trita Parsi, do you see what's going on right now in Yemen affecting those Iranian nuclear talks?

  • TRITA PARSI:

    I don't think it's going to have a significant impact on those negotiations. If anything, it may make it more clear that there is a need for a nuclear deal there, so that the United States and Iran actually can start talking about regional developments, because, so far, that's been off the table.

    But I would also caution against a view that the Iranians some way, somehow are taking over the region. Yes, the Iranians have been able to take advantage of chaos that has existed, which is rooted frankly in the invasion of Iraq, much better than others have. But the idea that this is turning into some sort of Iranian hegemony is a view that is held in Saudi Arabia, but I don't think it's an accurate view.

    It is driven by the sense of panic that the Saudis are having because so much has gone against Saudi interests in the last 20 years, which have very little to do with Iran and have much more to do with general geopolitical trends.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just finally, David Rothkopf, American interests in all of this, both of you have referred to this. How much should the U.S. be worried at this point about what has developed — what is developing in Yemen?

  • DAVID ROTHKOPF:

    Well, I think we should be worried about what's developed in Yemen as a symptom of what's going on in the region.

    For the first time in history, effectively, every single country in the Middle East, with the exception perhaps of Oman, is involved in a war. And that, of course, creates the conditions where wars can spread, where conflicts can get escalated, where our interests can really suffer.

    And right now, there is no sign that we or any of our allies have any ability to influence these outcomes in any significant way. This is a very, very dangerous moment for the U.S. interests in the region, as it is for the countries in the region themselves.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Very quickly, Trita Parsi?

  • TRITA PARSI:

    I think David is right. But I think it's also important to note that the true leadership that is needed here is to drive a new diplomatic initiative and bring all of the different parties to the table.

    In the past, the United States has had difficulties doing this because the Saudis refuse to come to the table if the Iranians were there. I think it's become increasingly clear all major powers have to be at the table in order to be able to find a new equilibrium in the region through diplomatic means, rather than thinking that it can be achieved through military means.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Trita Parsi and David Rothkopf, we thank you both.

  • DAVID ROTHKOPF:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment