US struggles to find footing on Yemen, as Iran increases influence

Analysis: After remaining discreetly on the sidelines for much of the conflict, Washington has taken ownership of Yemen war

Borzou Daragahi
Friday 30 November 2018 19:00 GMT
Malnutrition centre in Mukalla, Yemen provides care for children suffering hunger and famine

The US administration appears to be losing the war of perceptions over Yemen, and in some ways benefiting its primary adversary, Iran.

The US and Iran this week sought to position themselves ahead of anticipated Yemen peace talks in Sweden that pit their clients against each other at the negotiating table

On Thursday a senior US official gave reporters a show-and-tell about Iranian weapons allegedly recovered in Yemen, whilst Tehran’s top diplomat was in Geneva conferring with his Swedish counterpart about upcoming Yemen peace talks to begin in the next week or so.

“This is a function of Iran’s relentless commitment to put more weapons into the hands of even more of its proxies, regardless of the suffering,” US State Department Iran envoy Brian Hook said as he presented an array of Iranian weapons he claimed were recovered by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates en route to or in possession of Houthi rebel fighters allied with Tehran.

Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) with Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallstrom

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif derided the elaborate US presentation as an “absurd” effort to divert attention from the consequences of the Saudi-led war effort backed by Washington, and to come up with a peace formula.

“Today, after untold human suffering and war crimes by the Saudi coalition and its US accomplices, and efforts to whitewash their crimes with absurd allegations against Iran, our four-point plan still remains the only viable option,” Mr Zarif wrote on Twitter on Friday.

The US Senate, angered in part by the White House response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on Wednesday voted in a surprise move to advance a bill that would cut American participation in the Yemen conflict. The bill may fail, and Mr Trump could veto if it succeeds. But this week marked the moment when, after remaining discreetly on the sidelines for much of the conflict, Washington took ownership of the Yemen war, and the images of starving children associated with it.

Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, stands in front of an Iranian missile.

Mr Hook’s presentation built on a similar show given by Nikki Haley last year. Both purported to demonstrate how Iran was violating UN Security Council resolutions by exporting weapons to the Houthis. Mr Hook pointed to a Sayyad 2C surface-to-air missile “designed and manufactured in Iran”, anti-tank guided missiles “seized in an arms cache aboard a dhow in the Arabian Sea” or “found by Saudi Arabia during a raid in Yemen”.

Experts are calling Mr Hook’s revelations factually and technically problematic. Neither he nor any other American official has explained why the U.S. was sure that the Houthis hadn’t simply bought the rickety, Cold War-era Iranian weapons through the robust Middle East weapons black market.

“If you look through his statement, he said Saudi armed forces picked up weapons,” said Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert serving as a consultant for the International Crisis Group. “The Saudis don’t have boots on the ground anywhere in Yemen.”

In addition, the Arabian Sea doesn’t border Yemen. “That whole area is chock of people smuggling things,” said Mr Salisbury. “You can’t just say, ‘here’s some stuff we got in Yemen’.”

Sen. Cory Gardner announces measure to move ahead legislation calling for end to US involvement in Saudi-led war in Yemen

A source close to the Tehran government brushed off the presentation as a distraction from the ongoing Saudi-led bombing campaign and blockade, which experts say have been the main causes of the humanitarian crisis in the country.

“Iran on several occasions has refused all allegations and suggestions about sending weapons to any party of the war in Yemen as baseless and a cover-up for the continued attacks by some regional powers against one of the poorest nations of the region,” he told The Independent.

He noted that the Saudi blockade and control over the flow of humanitarian goods meant that Iran hadn’t been able to dispatch food and supplies to Yemen, much less weapons.

While the US reportedly stalled a UK-backed Security Council Resolution that would call for peace talks, and the Trump administration fought fruitlessly to prevent the US Senate from advancing a bill that would cut American support for the Yemen war, Iran was playing the responsible global citizen, advancing a peace plan Mr Zarif has pitched for years to forge a power-sharing deal between Yemen’s warring parties.

The Houthis have enthusiastically embraced the talks, so long as their delegation is guaranteed safe passage from and back to Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has been cagier about its participation, encouraged by battlefield victories in the crucial port city of Hodeidah.

“I can’t confirm if or when [the peace talks] will happen, but what I can say is that we are preparing,” Patric Nilsson, a Swedish foreign ministry spokesman, said in a radio interview on Thursday.

It remained unclear what purpose the US weapons presentation served, other than to underscore how determined the administration was to stand by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in a Yemen adventure that is overwhelmingly unpopular in the US. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was supposed to last a few weeks. It has instead stretched nearly three years.

Yemeni students walk to classes at their teacher’s house, which operates as a makeshift free school in the city of Taiz

In the meantime, Iran has gone from training of Houthis to becoming the group’s primary global sponsor, and likely arms supplier, as well as a crucial player in any peace talks.

Far from fighting Iranian influence, most analysts say the Saudi-led intervention has backed the Houthis into a corner and forced them to ally more strongly with Tehran and Hezbollah, giving Iran even more sway.

The US this week announced it was allocating $130m in food aid to Yemen, in part to alleviate global concern about the scenes of starving children victimised by the war.

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis has insisted that civilian casualties caused by Saudi and Emirati missiles striking Houthi positions would be even greater if not for US help in targeting and intelligence.

But other than the flawed rationale that it was confronting Iran, the US has yet to come up with a clear-cut explanation as to why it continues to participate in a war causing so much devastation, or has not shown any attempt at grappling with the internal tribal, sectarian and political dynamics that led to the war before Iran entered the picture.

“In most western capitals Yemen policy has almost always been a subset of some other strategy,” said Mr Salisbury. “Since the Trump administration has come in, it has treated Yemen as a subset of its broader policy against Iran.”

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