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In Yemen, A Battle Over A Crucial Port


We're going to go to Yemen now, where an already deadly civil war has turned into a dire humanitarian crisis. Saudi-led forces have threatened to seize the port city of Hodeida from Houthi rebels. This port is where most of the country's food and humanitarian aid is delivered. What's playing out is, in some ways, a proxy war. Yemeni troops backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to seize control of the port from Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran. And on top of that, the U.S. has been providing assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. We wanted to try to better understand the U.S. role and what's at stake here, so we've called Barbara Bodine. She served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, and she's with us now. Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BARBARA BODINE: My pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: So the U.S. has given some support to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others in this war - refueling Saudi planes, providing intelligence. Why?

BODINE: Initially in - when this war began in 2015, I think our major interest was keeping the Saudis on board with the relatively new Iran deal - of the Iran nuclear deal. And there was a misperception also that this would be a very short and simple war. Most of our support is because of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: Has the U.S. level of support increased under President Trump? We saw him forge a close relationship with the Saudis early in his presidency when he made his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia.

BODINE: Yes, it has definitely gone up. We've been providing the Saudis far more political cover and far more political encouragement for what they're doing. A year or so ago, the Saudis and the Emirates considered moving against the port of Hodeida, and the U.S. government actually dissuaded them from doing that. And under the previous administration, even if we were militarily complicit, Secretary Kerry was working diligently to try to get a peaceful resolution to this war. This administration has gone full throttle on political support as well as the military support.

MARTIN: So let's assist the other side of this. The Saudis and the U.S. accuse Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels. How much support is Iran giving them? And what would Iran achieve if the Houthis did take control of Yemen?

BODINE: The Saudis have long been concerned about Iranian influence over the Houthi. A lot of it, at least at the beginning, was misplaced. There is very little evidence that Iran was providing any kind of major support to the Houthi. This was a civil war, and the Houthi are its local grievances. Over the last three years, Iranian assistance, support has become more noticeable. The rockets and missiles the Houthis are now able to fire into Saudi Arabia come from Iran. But it would be a mistake to think of the Houthis as Iranian sock puppets.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have any sense that this administration has an endgame strategy in Yemen? What...


MARTIN: Do you have any sense of any overarching goal?

BODINE: I don't believe we have an endgame or an overarching goal in the least. There is no real thought on the Saudis, Emirates or our side on what reconstruction will look like. And we know ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan that reconstruction after this kind of conflict is a decades-long, billions-of-dollars enterprise. And there is no thought being given to that at all that I have seen.

MARTIN: That's Barbara Bodine. She is director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. Previously, she served as ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001. Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

BODINE: Thank you. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.