Obama Officials Spin the Huffington Post on Yemen

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, near Yemen / AP

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, near Yemen / AP

A feature of policymaking in the Age of Obama is this administration’s habitual, reflexive dishonesty with the American people. For yet another example, consider how the White House downplays Iran’s role in the fighting in Yemen, even as the U.S. Navy monitors an Iranian flotilla reportedly steaming to the assistance of Houthi rebels. Spokesmen for the Navy are falling over themselves to note that they are only there to track the activity, and that they have no authority to board the Iranian ships.

The Iran-backed Houthi insurgency is a problem for Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran because it highlights how the Iranians are opposed to the interests of traditional U.S. partners in the region, like the now displaced government of Yemen and its allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It also clearly demonstrates how Iran’s actions harm U.S. counter-terror efforts that rely on these traditional partners. So what does the White House do? It starts pushing the line that the Houthis aren’t actually Iranian proxies after all. Take this leak, published yesterday in the Huffington Post:

WASHINGTON — Iranian representatives discouraged Houthi rebels from taking the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last year, according to American officials familiar with intelligence around the insurgent takeover.

The seizure of the capital in September came as a surprise to the international community, as Houthi rebels demonstrating outside Sanaa realized the city was abandoned and effectively unguarded. Despite Iran’s advice, the Houthis walked into the city and claimed it.

The newly disclosed information casts further doubt on claims that the rebels are a proxy group fighting on behalf of Iran, suggesting that the link between Iran and the Yemeni Shiite group may not be as strong as congressional hawks and foreign powers urging U.S. intervention in Yemen have asserted.

U.S. lawmakers and Gulf state leaders who are skeptical of the nuclear negotiations with Iran have pointed to the Houthis’ rise to power in Yemen as more evidence of Iran’s unhelpful expansionary objectives in the region. But the news that Iran actually opposed the takeover paints a more complicated picture. As the regime in Tehran has signaled, the Iranians are not unhappy to see their Gulf rivals embroiled in conflict in their neighborhood, but their advice against seizing Sanaa suggests that controlling Yemen is at best a secondary priority for Iran, far behind relief from sanctions that could come with a successful nuclear pact.

On the other hand, the revelation that the Houthis directly disobeyed Iran gives credibility to the White House’s argument that Iran is not directing the rebels, who follow a different branch of Shiite Islam than Iran’s leaders and are believed to care more about corruption and the distribution of power in Yemen than the spread of Shiite influence across the Middle East.

Total misunderstanding, this whole “Iran-backed” thing. They come from different Shia sects, you see. And according to the evidence available to these “officials”—evidence not shown, apparently, to the credulous authors of the Huffington Post article—the Houthis disobeyed Iran by taking Sanaa.

There may be a kernel of truth to this—who knows? I haven’t seen the evidence, and neither have the authors of the Huffington Post report, though they are much more trusting than I am of what officials at this White House say. But whatever tensions exist between the Houthis and the mullahs, they are apparently not significant enough to stop Iran from sending convoys of ships to the aid of the rebels.

It takes some chutzpah to push the line that the Houthis and Iran are not closely linked the very same day that U.S. Navy ships in the region monitor such a convoy. But the same could be said of so many lies from this administration. Considering how poorly everything is going out there, one wonders if they lie to themselves with the same frequency that they lie to us.