WASHINGTON – The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could curb arms smuggling to Yemen’s Houthis and put pressure on the rebels after eight years of brutal war, a senior US government official told Al- Monitor.
The deal reached in China this month to resume diplomatic relations between the two regional heavyweights will be tested in Yemen, the center of proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition that backs the internationally recognized government. , and Iran, which supports it. the country’s Houthi rebels.
The bloody conflict, which has displaced millions of people since 2014 and plunged Yemen into the brink of famine, had slowed to a stalemate by the time a UN-brokered ceasefire was reached last April. Before it fell in October, the ceasefire significantly reduced casualties, established limited international flights from the airport in rebel-held Sanaa and increased fuel shipments to the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah.
The exact terms of the Saudi-Iranian agreement are not public but a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations told Al-Monitor that while the main focus is on normalizing ties with the kingdom, “the situation in Yemen is expected to benefit from it. from this agreement.”
The Saudis are widely believed to have been given some assurances that their arch-rivals would pressure the Houthis in Yemen, where Western officials say military aid from Iran has bolstered the militants’ war effort and cross-border attacks. on neighboring Saudi Arabia.
“I think there is some pressure on the Houthis because of the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” said the senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They know that if it goes ahead it means they’re going to get less from the Iranians in terms of weapons.”
“Visitors go to Tehran to say very nice things about it [the Iranians’] commitment to Yemen, and then the smuggling continues,” said the official. “Will we be able to break this pattern now, finally, with this agreement? I think that’s what we hope for.”
Western naval forces have for several months seized assault rifles, ammunition and other weapons on multiple vessels that appeared to be bound for Yemen. Tehran says it provides political support to the Houthis but denies providing them with training and weapons that would violate a UN arms embargo imposed in 2015.
To prevent the flow of illegal weapons, commercial imports at Yemen’s Red Sea ports are subject to a regime of UN inspections strictly enforced by the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government. Houthi’s main demand is to end the inspections in direct talks with Saudi Arabia that both sides managed to revive last year.
Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies think tank, said Yemeni merchants say they have not been subjected to an extra layer of vetting by the Saudi-led coalition at the Houthi port of Hodeidah, when there is usually commercial vessels must remain in a holding area before being cleared to dock.
A US official speaking to Al-Monitor said that no agreement had been reached but that “the bureaucratic processes for unloading ships to Hodeidah have been reduced.”
“I think the Saudis in particular want to show some flexibility that they understand that while there is no blockade, there are additional steps that can be taken down,” the official said.
In addition to lifting restrictions at Sanaa airport and the port of Hodeidah, the Houthis also demanded the payment of civil servant and military salaries in areas under their control for using the government’s oil and gas revenues.
“The ceiling they are negotiating for is extremely high,” Al-Iryani said. “I’m sure the Iranians are keen to keep the deal with Saudi Arabia, which would mean the Iranians would do their best to convince the Houthis to make reasonable demands.”
The Biden administration has also urged the Houthis to show more flexibility in cease-fire talks and contacted its officials hosted in the Omani capital Muscat.
“They are a group whose needs must be taken into account, so it is very important to maintain direct contact without going through other intermediaries,” said a senior US official of the Houthis.
A recent uptick in fighting, including in Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province, is seen as an attempt by the Houthis to improve their bargaining power in negotiations. Last week, Yemen’s defense minister narrowly escaped a drone attack on his convoy in the southwestern city of Taiz that was blamed on the Houthis. The rebels also announced a five-day suspension of humanitarian flights this week from Sanaa airport.
“The Houthis are jockeying for every little advantage,” said the senior US government official on the rise.
Although it is a positive first step, experts say that the long-standing grievances of Yemen’s other key parties would not be addressed if the Houthis and Saudi Arabia deal succeeds. It is also unclear whether the Saudi-Houthi negotiations can pave the way for UN-led talks that would include the government’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) and other Yemeni rivals.
“I can’t see why the Houthis will be encouraged to participate in a UN-led peace process if they already have what they want from the Saudis,” said Veena Ali-Khan, a researcher focused on Yemen at the International Crisis Group. “And the PLC, they want to be involved in the discussion, but they don’t have a clear negotiation strategy yet.”
Among the players excluded from the Saudi negotiations are the eight-member PLC and Yemen’s main separatist group, the Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council, which has said it will not abide by any deal reached on governance, resource or security issues in the south.
The senior US official said Washington is seeking a “comprehensive deal” to end Yemen’s multi-faceted war – not just Saudi Arabia’s involvement in it – which will eventually require peace talks that represent all Yemenis.
“The Saudis and Iran talking, the Saudis and the Houthis talking – these can go a long way but they don’t go to the finish line,” the official said. “You have to create a platform for Yemenis to be able to meet.”