What role will Iran play in shaping Yemen’s future?

A new presidential council may mean change in Yemen, but what influence will Iran have on their Houthi allies?

Houthi fighters
The Houthi rebels fighting the Yemeni government are allied to Iran [File: Hani Mohammed/AP]

Tehran, Iran – As Saudi Arabia continues to play a key role in influencing neighbouring Yemen’s political future, the kingdom’s main regional rival, Iran, has maintained its place on the other side of the equation.

In Yemen’s devastating seven-year war, Iran has supported the Houthi rebels, who took parts of the country in 2014 and began fighting a Saudi-led coalition in 2015. Tehran denies arming the Houthis, despite claims from the United Nations and others, while the Houthis say their drones and missiles are domestically made.

A new, eight-member Yemeni presidential council was inaugurated on Tuesday with Saudi support, after former president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi handed over power.

The council assumes leadership of the internationally recognised Yemeni government, which has been at war with the Houthis, at a time when a two-month truce negotiated by the United Nations is in place.

Fighting, however, has not stopped in the northern city of Marib. And the Houthis have claimed that fuel tankers have not had free access to the port of Hodeidah, and that flights have not fully resumed from Sanaa airport – conditions agreed to by the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government.

For its part, Iran has publicly welcomed the truce and has said that it hopes Yemen’s war, which has caused a major humanitarian crisis, is headed towards a political solution. It has yet to directly comment on the presidential council.

But it appears Iran believes that the Houthis, and by extension itself, have the upper hand in the war.

“I say this out of compassion,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech last week, directly addressing Saudi leaders. “Why do you continue a war in which you know you have no chance of success? Find a way to get yourself out of this fight.”

If the truce is truly implemented, Khamenei added, it can be extended and the people of Yemen can prevail through the “efforts, bravery and initiative of themselves and their leaders”.

‘Yemeni-Yemeni talks’

Meanwhile, the Iranian foreign ministry has described its proposal for putting an end to the war as an immediate stop to all fighting, an end to any restrictions on the flow of humanitarian aid, and “Yemeni-Yemeni talks” bringing the various sides in the conflict together.

According to Diako Hosseini, a Tehran-based foreign policy analyst, that last part means that the war can only be ended by Yemeni stakeholders without the intervention of any other parties, including Saudi Arabia.

“Efforts by Saudi Arabia and its allies to intervene in the peace process and create proxy groups is one of Iran’s concerns,” he told Al Jazeera. “Iran understands Saudi concerns, but believes these concerns must become incentives to find sustainable and fair solutions to help Yemenis to rely on themselves, and find a way out of this crisis by accepting facts.”

Hosseini said that while Iran has welcomed the truce, it will only view meaningful diplomatic efforts by the anti-Houthi bloc as indication of a true will to resolve the conflict.

“I don’t think Iran has reached a definitive judgement on this and is still waiting for more evidence,” the analyst said of the new presidential council. “It appears Iran is ready to play a facilitating role in achieving lasting peace, but the will of the opposing sides in Yemen plays a major role in this.”

‘Entrenching the Houthis’

Iran’s position on an eventual peace process in Yemen has been fairly consistent, according to Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

“It is willing to support a peace process provided that it perceives that such a process, whatever its form, will end up consolidating and entrenching Houthi power,” Juneau told Al Jazeera.

If that is not the case, Juneau said, Iran could thwart that process, something it has shown it is capable of achieving elsewhere in the region with its influence and supported forces.

Juneau thinks it is true that Iran wants a political solution to the war in Yemen, but the fact that its definition of what that means is so different from Saudi Arabia’s highly complicates the situation.

Iran, he said, “will not support any proposal that calls for the Houthis to disarm or to integrate their armed forces into national institutions. It will want the Houthis to maintain military and political institutions parallel to the state.”

“In this context, I think that Iran will not oppose eventual Houthi talks with the new presidential council – but its conditions for doing so, and its expectations for the eventual outcome, will make success in these eventual talks extremely difficult.”

Iran-Saudi talks

In the meantime, direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia behind closed doors in the Iraqi capital Baghdad could prove highly consequential.

But even those talks could be tied to developments in Yemen in the coming months – or vice versa. Iraq has so far hosted four rounds of talks between the foes, the first of which came a year ago, but a fifth round has proven elusive.

Tehran and Riyadh have a number of bilateral issues to resolve. Chief among them is the reestablishment of formal diplomatic ties, which were cut off in 2016 when protesters stormed the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia has so far only allowed several Iranian diplomats into Jeddah to reopen the country’s representative office at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Analyst Hosseini said only time will tell which will come sooner: making strides in resolving the crisis in Yemen, or achieving a fundamental agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“The important thing is that Iran and Saudi Arabia accept that regional differences must be resolved through cooperation and shared agreement. It is this spirit and mentality that can set aside not only the crisis in Yemen but also other differences,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera