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U.S. Walks High-Wire Military Balancing Act In Yemen

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: An exchange of missile fire off the coast of Yemen raises a question. We put that question to a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche.

So what is the risk that this exchange of fire between the U.S. Navy and people on shore could escalate into some wider war?

STEPHEN SECHE: I think the risk is there, but I don't see it, at the moment, as enormous. I think that the United States doesn't want to see any escalation - not even sure that the Iranians do at the moment.

INSKEEP: OK. So the risk of a wider war is not so large, but the answer suggests the complexity of this situation. Yemen is in the midst of a civil war that involves its neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iran on opposing sides. Iran has been sending ships to the same region where the United States Navy is operating, even though the United States wants to avoid becoming too involved.

SECHE: One of the key moments we face now is to not internationalize this conflict any further. It's already been deeply distorted by the 18 months of the protracted bombing by the Saudi coalition. The Iranians don't have a deep stake in Yemen. For them, it's mostly an opportunity to agitate and unnerve the Saudis. But I don't think they see Yemen as a prize of any sort.

INSKEEP: And of course, the United States has now been accused of human rights violations for supporting the Saudis who have, in addition to bombing military targets, bombed markets and civilians and other things. How involved is the United States already in this war?

SECHE: Well, we clearly have been involved for much longer than anyone would like it to be the case. And I think we've been involved in ways, certainly with the munitions - we have supplied the Saudis from the beginning of this conflict as well as refueling in the air and logistical support, intelligence and other elements quite deeply, although, again, I think reluctantly and with some reticence. But that doesn't really speak to any kind of absolution for what we are, basically, at this moment, associating ourselves with.

INSKEEP: So is that - we're in pretty deep?

SECHE: I think we're in pretty deep. And I think there's been a genuine effort to try to extract ourselves from this. I think there has been a continued effort to do so, certainly in the wake of the very terrible strike on a funeral ceremony over the weekend in Sanaa that killed 140 people. The U.S. very publicly distanced itself from that kind of a tactic and said we are not going to write a blank check to the Saudis to do what they wish to do in Yemen at this moment or at any moment.

INSKEEP: I just want to run through some of the players here and invite you, if you can do it, to put in a sentence what you believe each player wants. And let's start with Saudi Arabia. What do the Saudis want?

SECHE: Saudi Arabia wants to be assured that it's not going to have to live with a hostile neighbor on its southern border for perpetuity.

INSKEEP: What does Iran want?

SECHE: Iran wants to unnerve the Saudis, poke a stick at the Saudis and make them know that they can't ignore Iran.

INSKEEP: No, because they are regional rivals, of course.

And in a sentence, what do the Houthi rebels want?

SECHE: Never been quite clear to me. I think what they want is some level of autonomy that will allow them to have their own area of Yemen assured, to practice their faith and to exercise political control.

INSKEEP: What does the old government want?

SECHE: They want to have everything back to where it was.


And finally the United States - what does the United States want out of all this?

SECHE: I think the United States' principal interest in Yemen has been and remains issues of security and counterterrorism. I think we see this as a lot of ungoverned territory. We see Saudi Arabia as a very close ally that is threatened by the Houthis and perhaps by Iran to a certain extent. And we see the freedom of navigation issues, as a lot of the world's oil passes around the coast of Yemen. All of those are issues of security that we want to make sure come out right.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Seche, thanks very much.

SECHE: You're very welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: Stephen Seche was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.