Trump Can Still Prove He's a Deal Maker—by Brokering Peace in Yemen and Defusing a Regional War With Iran | Opinion

The "Art of the Deal" seems to have eluded our president since taking office. In an arc of crises spanning from Venezuela to North Korea, Trump's supposed talent for negotiations has produced noticeably few breakthroughs. Last week's attacks against Saudi oil installations, which many have blamed on Iran, have raised the stakes and brought the threat of yet another conflict in a region already beset by violence. But amidst rising tensions in the Gulf, Yemen—the terrain where Iranian and Saudi proxies have been engaged in a bitter civil war—presents President Trump with a unique opportunity to salvage his reputation as a dealmaker. More importantly, it could be a vital first step in reversing a dangerous game of saber-rattling between Washington and Tehran.

The civil war in Yemen has been catastrophic for regional security, American interests, and most of all for the well-being of Yemeni civilians. Years of U.S. military support to the Saudi Coalition has failed to dislodge the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, and has provided the fuel for an air campaign that has precipitated the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Far from containing the spread of Iranian influence in the region, the conflict has handed Tehran yet a fresh staging ground for its offshore deterrence operations and pushed the relatively independent Houthis closer to their Persian backers.

Yemen itself is in ruins: the threat of famine is persistent, preventable diseases have spread, and coalition airstrikes have caused thousands of civilian casualties. In the chaotic gridlock, new lines of conflict are being drawn. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, long considered the organization's most ambitious and effective branch, has expanded its areas of control and, as reported by CNN, has even received material support from U.S. allies. Even the government-aligned forces have begun to fracture, with bouts of violence between Saudi and Emirates-backed factions.The truth is that no one is winning this war.

Regionally, the conflict has become a stage for a proxy conflict between Iran, its Gulf adversaries, and the U.S., as demonstrated by last week's attack on Saudi Arabia. Whatever the final details may be, whether strikes were launched from Yemen or elsewhere, Yemen has become a platform either for Iranian directed-attacks or, at the very least, for Iranian plausible deniability. That uncertainty, while perhaps of tactical value to Tehran, is a breeding ground for miscalculations and misunderstandings that could all too easily spark a wider conflict.

Yet, for all its complexities and fault lines, opportunity for diplomacy in Yemen remains, and there are compelling reasons for the Trump administration to devote considerable resources to achieving peace. As noted by Martin Griffiths, UN Special Envoy for Yemen, the war's great secret is that it can be ended. A cessation of fighting could put a halt to the cross-border violence that has vexed Riyadh; plug the financial, reputational, and human drain that conflict has been on America's Gulf allies; begin to close the ungoverned spaces that are essential to the survival of armed groups; and, most importantly, begin to subdue the inconceivable suffering that has been inflicted on the people of Yemen. And with core discussions on Iran's nuclear program corrupted by heated rhetoric from both sides, Yemen may serve as a useful proxy for de-escalating tensions, building trust and providing a tentative toehold for indirect engagement between Washington and Tehran. Collaboration on ending this conflict, however circuitous, should create breathing space for restraint also on the nuclear deal.

President Trump is rightfully skeptical of stumbling into another war and has signaled (in his own way) his interest in diplomatic solutions. Asked just after the Saudi attacks as to whether diplomacy with Iran had now been exhausted, Trump replied, "It's never exhausted. In fact... it's never exhausted until the final 12 seconds." Already, the Trump Administration has reportedly sought to initiate direct talks with the Houthis on ending the war, and has urged the Saudis to engage constructively in the process. Still, these only the first steps; the road ahead will not be easy. But the journey is worthwhile. Ending Yemen's conflict won't instantly put an end to the rivalry that has brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war, but could be exactly what is needed to set a new course for a more peaceful future for the U.S. and the Middle East.

Elias Yousif is Program and Research Associate, Security Assistance Monitor, Center for International Policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​