Yemen crisis resists resolution despite Iran-Saudi thaw

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The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran brought with it renewed hope that a comprehensive, lasting peace deal may be on the horizon in Yemen, home to a near decade-long civil war that has fueled one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet.

After all, Yemen’s civil war featured a Saudi-led coalition backing the internationally recognized government seeking to defeat the Iranian-backed rebel Houthi movement, in what was widely seen as a proxy war between the region’s two heavyweights.

Hundreds of thousands have died on both sides and millions of Yemenis still face food shortages and a lack of basic services and sanitation, the United Nations says.

But U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts caution that the optimism may be premature. They say that the landmark deal between Riyadh and Tehran to restore diplomatic ties could in fact turn out to be an important milestone in Yemen’s peace process, but only if the two governments — particularly the Iranian side — take tangible steps in the short term.

Specifically, Biden administration officials want to see Iran stop arms deliveries and other aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who since 2014 have been battling Yemeni government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition. The Iran-Saudi Arabia pact — brokered by the Chinese Communist government in a sign of Beijing’s own rising geopolitical power — did not offer any concrete commitments on ending the war in Yemen. In fact, some foreign policy analysts say that it appears one of China’s key accomplishments was to convince Riyadh to agree to the deal without promises from Iran that it would immediately halt its backing of the Houthis.

But Iran should still take that step, officials say. They argue that Iran has an opportunity to show it is serious about both restoring normal diplomatic relations with Riyadh and playing a positive role in ending a regional conflict, rather than helping to perpetuate one.

The Saudis “are going to be watching the Yemen space. And if the Iranians want to show they are really turning a corner on the conflict, then there won’t be smuggling of weapons to the Houthis anymore in violation of UN Security Council resolutions,” Timothy Lenderking, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Yemen, said this week at an event in Washington hosted by the Middle East Institute.

“There are narcotics being smuggled to Yemen in violation of Security Council resolutions and to the detriment of Yemeni society,” he said. “So, this is an area where the Iranians are going to have to demonstrate their commitment” to ending the conflict.

“We also would like to see the Iranians show support for the political process that we hope is coming,” Mr. Lenderking said.

That political process hinges on continued direct negotiations between the Yemeni government and rebel groups. The conflict has largely cooled since the two sides struck a cease-fire deal in April 2022, which came at a crucial moment in the fight. By the end of 2021, the United Nations estimated that about 377,000 people died as a result of the war, some by direct military action and many more from hunger and disease.

The peace pact expired last October, but both parties have mostly abided by its terms in the months since. There is still some isolated fighting on the ground, but U.S. and international observers say there have been no major offensives, no cross-border attacks by Houthi groups on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or other regional players, and no air strikes in Yemen by the Saudi side.

The cease-fire paid immediate dividends. It has allowed for the resumption of regular regional flights out of the airport in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, and the movement of food, medicine and other goods through Yemeni ports that had previously been cut off by fierce fighting.

It also offered the brightest glimmer of hope in years that a permanent end to the fighting could be on the horizon.

“Maintaining this truce and strengthening progress toward peace has been a main focus of my administration’s engagement with our partners in the Middle East,” President Biden said in an April 2 statement marking the ceasefire’s one-year anniversary. “That focus will continue intensively as we seek to build on this extraordinary progress and support all efforts towards a comprehensive resolution to this terrible conflict.”

Early in his presidency, Mr. Biden cut off U.S. arms shipments to the Saudi-led coalition for offensive operations in Yemen.

Hans Grundberg, the U.N.’s special envoy, told a Security Council meeting last month that all sides should “seize the opportunity” presented by the diplomatic opening between Iran and the Saudis.

“The parties must seize the opportunity presented by this regional and international momentum to take decisive steps towards a more peaceful future,” he said. “… Much has been achieved over the past year and now it is time to [take] the next step.”

The negotiating table 

Over the past year, the two sides have continued negotiating with the aim of securing a permanent peace. The Iran-Saudi normalization deal seemed to provide fuel for those talks. Just days after the pact was announced, both the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels agreed to a major prisoner swap. At least 887 detainees are set to be freed later this month, according to the UN.

Coming on the heels of the Saudi-Iran agreement, the prisoner release suggested that momentum was building toward a final, lasting peace deal.

But analysts warn against tying the peace process in Yemen directly to Saudi-Iranian normalization efforts. They say that it’s far too simple to frame the country’s civil war as a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and they contend that neither Riyadh nor Tehran can simply call off the fighting on a moment’s notice if they so choose.

“The key issues are internal to Yemen and the resolution of the conflict has to be internal to Yemen,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, senior fellow on diplomacy at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013.

“A lot of the significance of the [Saudi-Iran] agreement remains unproven,” Mr. Feierstein said in an interview. “I think it’s not at all clear that it means terribly much and that the resolution of the conflict still has to come through a Yemeni internal negotiation, presumably supported, sponsored, by the UN.”

The Houthis, Mr. Feierstein said, must be convinced that they cannot win the conflict militarily, and therefore their best option is to engage in direct negotiations. But the Houthis could in theory continue fighting without direct Iranian support, meaning any deals made by Tehran have limited impact on Houthi decision-making.

“The Houthis are fully capable of carrying on this conflict without Iran,” Mr. Feierstein said. “I think the provision of drones and ballistic missiles, at least components of those things to the Houthis, has been important to them over the last few years. But could they continue the fight without the Iranians? Yes, absolutely they can.”

Still, continuing the conflict over the long term would surely be more difficult for the Houthis without Iranian backing. With that in mind, Saudi Arabia initially insisted on the end of aid to the Houthi rebels. But it appears that Beijing’s involvement helped change that calculus.

“Riyadh’s initial position included preconditions for any talks with Iran on Tehran ‘leaving Yemen to Yemenis,’ as the kingdom viewed Iran’s support for the Houthis as a main obstacle to any de-escalation,” Yasmine Farouk, a Middle East scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a March 30 analysis. “But over the past two years, the Saudi position has evolved, and China helped broker a compromise by which Riyadh agreed to Tehran’s request to announce the restoration of diplomatic relations before Iran halted support to the Houthis.”

Despite the outstanding questions, officials and analysts largely believe there has never been a more promising moment to end the conflict.

“This is the best opportunity for peace Yemen has had since this war began,” said Mr. Lenderking, the State Department’s Yemen envoy. “And we absolutely must take full advantage of the positive strands that are emerging here.”

— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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