Iran displeased by deal between Yemeni government, southern separatists

Although Tehran has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, it also doesn’t want a Riyadh-led resolution to the war.

al-monitor Representatives of Yemen's government and southern separatists sign a Saudi-brokered deal to end a power struggle in the southern port of Aden, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 5, 2019.  Photo by Saudi Press Agency/via REUTERS.

Nov 13, 2019

Iran condemned Nov. 6 the Riyadh Agreement, which integrated the Southern Transitional Council into the Cabinet of Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the Riyadh Agreement would lead to the “occupation of southern Yemen” by Saudi Arabia, and “will by no means help settle the problems of Yemen.”

Iran’s strident opposition to the Riyadh Agreement can be explained by its apprehensions about the deal’s impact on the balances of forces in Yemen and concerns about escalating tensions with Saudi Arabia. Ali Ahmadi, a Tehran-based geopolitical analyst, told Al-Monitor that Iran views the Riyadh Agreement as “not a step toward peace” but a mere “reorganization of forces on one side of the conflict.” Although the Riyadh Agreement received praise from the international community for preventing a protracted civil war in southern Yemen, Iran views the restoration of unity within the Saudi-led coalition as a negative development. Ahmadi said Iran views the conflict in Yemen as an “illegal war of aggression caused by Saudi-Sunni sectarian expansionism,” and sees “friction among those forces as a positive step toward their eventual withdrawal.”

Although Saudi Arabia has reportedly engaged with Iraq and Pakistan on de-escalating tensions with Iran, the Iranian foreign policy community remains wary of Riyadh’s intentions. Maysam Behravesh, a former Iranian intelligence analyst and academic at Lund University in Sweden, told Al-Monitor, “Iran’s strong rejection of the Riyadh Agreement is driven by its perceptions of Saudi and US involvement in the Iraq and Lebanon protests.” By criticizing Saudi diplomatic efforts in Yemen, Iran is sending a signal to Riyadh that it views Yemen as a lever to retaliate against Saudi Arabia’s efforts to contain Iran.

As Iran wishes to keep Saudi Arabia embroiled in Yemen and to prevent Riyadh from striking a peace agreement on its terms, Tehran could expand its support for the Houthis and try to increase its profile as a diplomatic stakeholder in Yemen. On Oct. 26, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam to Tehran, and called for the “removal of the siege on Yemen.” As this meeting took place in parallel with the Riyadh Agreement negotiations, it was widely viewed as an attempt by Iran to express solidarity with the Houthis against a reunified Saudi-led coalition. Iran’s endorsement of Houthi leader Mohammed al-Houthi’s efforts to downplay the Riyadh Agreement’s significance also illustrated Tehran’s resolute commitment to the Houthi cause.  

Although the Houthis are participating in back-channel negotiations with Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen, tensions between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have continued to flare. On Nov. 9, Houthi-run media station Al-Masirah TV claimed that the Houthis shot down a Saudi spy drone in al-Sawh, which borders Najran province in southern Saudi Arabia. This incident and Iran’s rejection of the Riyadh Agreement have sparked concerns that Iran will continue encouraging Houthi belligerence. Fatima Alasrar, a nonresident expert at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor that Iran could encourage Houthi expansion in southern Yemen in order to “undermine Saudi Arabia’s role as a mediator.” Alasrar elaborated on this potential scenario by saying, “Iran and the Houthis have a low price to pay in destabilizing local Yemeni areas,” because of a lack of international media scrutiny against these actions.

In addition to expanding its support for the Houthis, the Riyadh Agreement could cause Iran to intensify its efforts to emerge as a prominent diplomatic stakeholder in Yemen’s peace process. Recent statements from senior Iranian officials reveal Iran’s desire to expand its involvement in Yemen’s peace negotiations. On Oct. 13, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei argued that the implementation of Iran’s four-point plan for peace could end the war in Yemen. On Oct. 16, Iranian parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said Tehran would be ready to mediate in Yemen, if Saudi Arabia accepted a political solution to the conflict.

These confident assessments of Iran’s potential impact on Yemen’s peace process reflect Tehran’s efforts to convince the international community that it can play a constructive role in Yemen. In August, the Iranian Foreign Ministry hosted a meeting in Tehran with the Houthis, and representatives from the European Union’s E4 (the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy) that discussed the need for an immediate cease-fire in Yemen. In September, Iran unveiled its “Coalition for Hope” Gulf security plan, which illustrated its growing commitment to preserving regional collective security, and Tehran has emphasized the importance of ending the war in Yemen for stability in the Persian Gulf.

In spite of these statements of intent, Iran remains ambiguous about its vision for Yemen’s post-conflict future. In August, Khamenei formally endorsed Yemen’s Houthi government and said “the resistance of Yemen’s believing men and women” would provide Yemen’s future leaders. In spite of the Iran-Houthi alliance’s growing strength, the credibility of Khamenei’s vision is undercut by the Houthis’ inability to achieve lasting military successes in southern Yemen.

When asked about how Iran might work around these limitations, Abdulsalam Mohammed, the director of the Sanaa-based Abaad Center for Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Iran does not need full control over Yemen” but rather wants to ensure the Houthis control areas near the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border and “remain a strong armed force inside or outside the state.” To legitimize a Houthi foothold in Yemen, Iran prefers a power-sharing agreement to sweeping reforms of Yemen’s constitutional structure. Sivash Fallahpour, a Tehran-based journalist, told Al-Monitor that Iran rejects the idea of a federal state in Yemen, as “it has repeatedly declared that is against any project of geographic change in the Middle East.”

Although Iran remains the international community’s most strident critic of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, Tehran’s opposition to the Riyadh Agreement suggests that it is equally opposed to a Saudi-led diplomatic resolution of the war. In order to constrain Saudi Arabia’s freedom of action in the Middle East and derail the momentum of its diplomatic initiatives, Iran could strengthen its alliance with the Houthis and expand its own arbitration initiatives in Yemen in the coming months.

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