WASHINGTON -- The State Department has announced that Yemen's embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, will have diplomatic immunity while he visits the United States this week for medical treatment.
The immunity is being granted to Saleh as it would to any foreign head of state, the State Department said in a statement, and will last "until a new Yemeni president is sworn in following elections on February 21." Saleh is due to arrive in the country any day to seek treatment at a New York hospital for injuries suffered during a June attack on his presidential compound by anti-regime forces.
Saleh's visit to the U.S. has been a source of great consternation among American policymakers, who have struggled to balance their desire to smooth the way out of power for a longtime American ally with their wish not to be seen as giving special privileges to an Arab autocrat who has violently suppressed popular protests in his country.
For months, American officials have been working with members of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council to ensure a peaceful transition of power to Yemen's vice president, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi.
"We have been working closely to try to support the people of Yemen in implementing the GCC agreement, the agreement they've made with each other," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland earlier this week.
But even as many have sought to portray his departure as a momentous sign of acquiescence, Saleh has hinted that his role in Yemeni politics is far from over. In a speech shortly before he departed Yemen on Sunday, Saleh apologized for any "shortcomings" during his more than 30 years in power, but also pledged that he would be back in the country in time for the elections.
Earlier attempts to secure a peaceful transition out of power for Saleh have not proven entirely successful.
Last summer, shortly after he was wounded in the presidential compound attack, Saleh left Yemen for several months to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia. While there, he met with President Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, who is also in charge of American policy in Yemen, and seemed to be on the verge of exiting the country permanently.
Instead, Saleh returned to Yemen in early September and presided over one of the deadliest days in the government's crackdown on protesters.
A few days later, a U.S. drone strike killed one of the most wanted al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, leading to a showering of praise for the military-level cooperation between the two countries.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton, said that the U.S. finds itself in the difficult position of having to give shelter to an autocrat after months of policy "missteps" in the region, including half-measures that would push Saleh to the exit but would leave much of his regime still intact.
"The U.S. had a unique and golden opportunity to help Yemen transition away from the rule of President Saleh and his family. But instead of taking the lead on that, the U.S. outsourced the democratic transition to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that helped put down popular protests in Bahrain," Johnsen said. "Now because transition didn't come about -- who would have guessed? -- the U.S. is left holding the bag when Saleh needs a place to go to have surgery."
Last week in the Ivory Coast, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that while the U.S. was disappointed by the way Saleh had managed the transition, the administration hoped to continue to work with "our partners there" on counterterrorism measures.
Those partners, Johnsen said, are largely members of the Saleh family and regime.
"It's really kind of a strange situation where the U.S. is pushing for a change in name at top, but not a change of system," Johnsen explained. "This is something that the Yemenis are not so excited about. They've had 30 some years of Saleh family rule, and the country has been run into the ground."
In recent weeks, Saleh appears to have taken further steps to secure his pathway out of power, including accepting a deal to step down at the end of February in exchange for permanent immunity from prosecution within his own country.
American officials hope that having him out of the country until then will finally make the presidential transition possible, even if it is only a first step.
"We do consider it might be helpful to the transition process that he's out of the country now," Nuland said. "However, his visa application was for medical treatment. It was approved for medical treatment. It was not approved for political purposes. ... The timing, we think, is fortuitous, however, and we hope that the Yemenis will use the time well."