Iran’s support for Yemen’s Houthi movement is “quite significant and it’s lethal”, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said on Wednesday, as he called a battle for Yemen’s gas-rich Marib region the single biggest threat to peace efforts.
Lenderking told US lawmakers that Iran supports the Houthis in several ways, including through training, providing lethal support and helping them “fine-tune” their drone and missile programs.
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“Unfortunately all of this is working to very strong effects as we see more and more attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – and potentially other countries – more accuracy and more lethality. So this is a great concern to us,” Lenderking told a hearing of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Iran’s support to the Houthis is quite significant, and it’s lethal,” Lenderking said.
Iran has denied supporting the Houthis. A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York dismissed Lenderking’s remarks as unsubstantiated claims against Iran.
“Iran has, time and again called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Yemen,” the Iranian spokesman said. “In contrast, the US has been providing the deadliest weapons to those who are using them to kill innocent men, women and children on a daily basis.”
“It’s been, frankly, very difficult to intercept ships,” Lenderking said. “We need our international partners to join us. … We need countries like Oman to help make sure that their border remains close to any of this type of traffic from Iran.”
Since taking office in January, US President Joe Biden has made Yemen a priority and appointed Lenderking to help revive stalled UN efforts to end a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“What I see is continued aiding and abetting an army of Houthis by the Iranians so that they can continue attacking Saudi Arabia, and unfortunately those attacks have risen quite strongly in the last couple of months,” Lenderking told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing later on Wednesday.
The United States should “leave the matter of finding a resolution to the senseless conflict in the capable hands of the regional countries,” the Iranian UN mission spokesman said.
Fighting has intensified in recent days as the Houthis push their offensive to take Marib, which if successful would strengthen the movement’s hand in any future political negotiations.
“This offensive is the single biggest threat to peace efforts and is also having devastating humanitarian consequences. If we do not stop the fighting in Marib now, it will trigger a wave of even greater fighting and instability,” Lenderking said.
“We are already witnessing this through increased attacks on other front lines, a significant increase in airstrikes and more Houthi attacks on civilian and other infrastructure in Saudi Arabia,” Lenderking added.
Lenderking told the lawmakers there were about 70,000 US citizens living in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and “it is our greatest fear that Americans will be killed in a Houthi attack.”
The six-year-long conflict in Yemen was sparked after the Houthis removed the country’s government from the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, which forced the internationally recognised government to flee the city.
A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in 2015; the Houthis have said they are fighting a corrupt system.
The UN humanitarian office says the war has caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for its bombing campaign in Yemen that has created what the UN said is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Aid groups report more than 20 million people in the impoverished Arab nation are experiencing food insecurity and half of them are at risk of famine.