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Former Iran ambassador: Saudis must accept Houthis

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Seyed Ali Asghar Ghoreishi, former Iranian ambassador to Yemen, discussed the nature of Iran's support for the Houthis, elements necessary to end the fighting in Yemen and the possibility of extremist groups seizing large sections of territory in Yemen.
A fighter from the Southern Popular Resistance mans a machine gun at the front line of fighting against Houthi fighters, on the outskirts of Yemen's southern port city of Aden June 6, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

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A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia launched on March 26 Operation Decisive Storm, a military campaign in Yemen against Ansar Allah, a Zaydi (Shiite) Muslim rebel group commonly referred to as the Houthis. The coalition's goal was to restore to power former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who had resigned on Jan. 22, just days after he and the Houthi had reached a power-sharing deal following their seizure of the presidential palace. Hadi is currently in exile in Saudi Arabia, while the Houthis, backed by forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, continue to fight various forces in Yemen, some of them aligned with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have accused Iran, its regional rival, of backing the Houthis.

In a phone interview, Seyed Ali Asghar Ghoreishi, former Iranian ambassador to Yemen, told Al-Monitor that Iran’s support of the Houthis has not been military. He believes that accepting the reality of Ansar Allah’s emergence and acknowledging the “suppressed demands of the Zaydis” is crucial to any hope of resolving the Yemeni crisis. A UN-sponsored meeting is scheduled for June 14 to discuss an end to the fighting, which has led to a humanitarian crisis.

Ghoreishi, who headed Iran’s mission in Yemen from 1999 to 2003 and later became the director of documents and archives of the Foreign Ministry before retiring, emphasized not referring to Ansar Allah as the Houthis, stating, “Houthi is a city between Saada and Sanaa, and the family of Sheikh Badreddin al-Houthi, father of Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, are located there. Houthi is just the family name of Badreddin, so we shouldn’t attribute this current to just one person.”

Al-Monitor:  US officials and Saudi officials accuse the Houthis of receiving Iranian support. Are the Houthis receiving Iranian support? If so, how?

Ghoreishi:  Supporting poor, oppressed and deprived people has always been the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its constitution. This policy doesn’t differentiate between Sunnis or Shiites. Helping oppressed Palestinians plus backing uprisings in Arab countries against their dictator regimes during the Arab Spring is proof of it. Ansar Allah, and the Yemeni people in general, have been under the oppression of dictator regimes and corrupt military commanders, and the Saudi government has supported these regimes. During wars from 2004 until 2009, which the former regime of Yemen imposed on the oppressed people of Saada and the Zaydis, Saudi Arabia supported the regime and provoked the religious differences against the Zaydis with the support of the Salafists, takfiris and people such as Sheikh Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi'i.

When I was in Yemen, I witnessed massive propaganda against Shiites triggered by Saudi Arabia aiding Salafi and takfiri currents. It’s been a few decades that Saudi Arabia has been heavily invested in interfering in the internal affairs of Yemen. They are also provoking the Yemeni people to turn against each other by inciting religious differences. Nonetheless, the courageous and informed people of Yemen have not been much influenced by these acts. Under these circumstances, it is natural for Ansar Allah and the Zaydis to expect Iran’s support and help.

Al-Monitor:  Do you mean Iran is supporting them right now?

Ghoreishi:  Yes, Iran is helping them politically and spiritually.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think Iran’s aid ship docking in Djibouti was a step taken to facilitate peace talks? [Editor's note: Iran had prepared aid to be delivered to the people of Yemen and had initially refused to allow inspectors to verify the aid, but later agreed to dock in Djibouti for inspection.]

Ghoreishi: Iran has cooperated with the UN and intends to facilitate the talks and has been moving in this direction ever since. In my view, our aid ship docked in Djibouti with the aim of assisting the peace talks and easing tensions. It is noteworthy that Iran gave a yes to the procedures determined by the UN, not Saudi Arabia.

Al-Monitor: Iran has been urging the sides toward a cease-fire and has also put forward a proposal for resolving the crisis. Why haven’t Tehran’s attempts to resolve the issue borne fruit?

Ghoreishi:  At first, I should say that Iran is not the only country that has been planning to stop the attacks and aggression of Saudi Arabia against the oppressed people of Yemen. Plus, bear in mind that Saudi Arabia started the war with the excuse of it being at Mansour Hadi’s request and has kept bombing the oppressed but resistant Yemenis nonstop. The people of Yemen should make decisions about their destiny themselves. Nonetheless, Iran proposed a four-article plan to solve the crisis there: cease-fire, humanitarian assistance, inter-Yemeni talks and formation of an inclusive government. The Yemeni crisis has far-reaching dimensions, and the UN and the envoy of [Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon are also making attempts to find a solution to the crisis. As mediations are underway, it is necessary for all the sides to accept the realities. The emergence of Ansar Allah and the suppressed demands of the Zaydis are among these realities. The solutions currently presented ignore these realities and consequently won’t lead to any final solution.

Al-Monitor:  What is Iran’s interest in Yemen?

Ghoreishi:  Iran has no interest in Yemen except for backing the oppressed side and providing humanitarian aid.

Al-Monitor:  But isn’t it important for Iran to have influence over Yemen, where the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is?

Ghoreishi:  We have no economic interest in Yemen. In fact, they have nothing Iran wants. We have always been there; our presence dates back to 1,000 years ago. We didn’t do anything in the Strait of Hormuz to worry some people, much less in Bab el-Mandeb. This is just part of baseless Iranophobic propaganda. Iran and Yemen’s relationship has old roots stemming from the history of the two countries. The ties didn’t just take shape after the Islamic Revolution. Our relations with the Zaydis dates back to the third century. At the time, we had a Zaydi dynasty established in Iran, when the founder of the Zaydi government in Yemen traveled to Iran, Medina and then got invited to Saada to form a government there.

Al-Monitor:  Yemen has become a point of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia so much so that Iran’s supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] even addressed the issue of Saudi Arabia. However, the Syrian or Iraqi issues, for example, did not cause this much regional tension. Why do you think that is?

Ghoreishi:  Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia came into being in the first days of [the 1979] Islamic Revolution. The Saudis supported [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein and his imposed war against Iran, although the relations have had their ups and downs. Disagreements were reduced to a minimum by former President Mohammad Khatami, even a security treaty was signed between the two countries. But the main reason behind the heightening of disputes may be due to Saudi Arabia’s waging a war against Yemen directly.

Al-Monitor:  Some Iranian analysts claim that the Yemeni war was started with the aim of affecting Iran’s nuclear talks. What do you think about this?

Ghoreishi:  Saudi aggression against Yemen coinciding with the Lausanne talks wasn’t just a coincidence.

Al-Monitor:  What makes you think so?

Ghoreishi:  Saudi Arabia is completely against Iran’s nuclear talks and doesn’t want Iran to reach a final agreement. It pushes for the sanctions against Iran to go on so that the pressures on Tehran would be kept alive. They have been interfering in nuclear talks and have sown their seed of discontent in the US. They simply don’t want this deal to go through.

Al-Monitor:  With tensions rising every minute, is it likely that Iran will send military advisers to Yemen?

Ghoreishi:  Iran has neither the need nor wish to do so, and the people of Yemen also don’t need any military advisers.

Al-Monitor:  Riyadh Yassin, foreign minister of the exiled government of Yemen, has indicated that the crisis won’t end unless the Houthis lay down their weapons, and [former Yemeni Prime Minister] Khaled Bahah has also given a no to holding negotiations until the Houthis show a commitment to [UN Security Council] Resolution 2216. Do you think the Houthis will agree to this?

Ghoreishi:  These sorts of statements expressed by Riyadh Yassin and Khaled Bahah are what I previously described as ignoring the realities in Yemen. Ansar Allah and the Zaydis are undeniable realities in Yemen, and I think the current crisis stems from this point — because the real weight and share of Ansar Allah wasn’t considered at all.

Al-Monitor:  What is the main demand of Ansar Allah that you consider “ignored”?

Ghoreishi:  The problem is that Saudi Arabia and Mansour Hadi aren’t willing to accept Ansar Allah as a reality. Ansar Allah demands to be part of the power [structure]. The Zaydis have been under pressure during the past 50 years, and Ali Abdullah Saleh imposed six wars on them that led to the martyrdom of approximately 18,000 in Saada. Therefore, they had to come out and take power in Sanaa to get rid of the oppressors. That way, no one could hurt them anymore.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think Saudi Arabia will dispatch ground troops to Yemen, and what would be the result of such a decision?

Ghoreishi:  Yemen would be a swamp for every country that sends ground forces there. In the first days of the Yemeni war, Saudi Arabia asked Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt to take part in a ground attack, but none of them accepted. They knew what the result of such an action would be, especially Egypt, which had military involvement in the Yemeni civil wars from 1962 to 1970. At the time, [President] Gamal Abdel Nasser dispatched 70,000 forces to Yemen, but failed to determine the destiny of the civil war with these ground troops. In Yemen, all of the people and tribes are armed, and war in this country, especially the mountainous area of the north, would cause them high death tolls.

Currently, Saudi Arabia is facing a serious problem with armed Yemeni tribesmen along with its borders, but for now has tried to retaliate by airstrikes and destruction of Yemeni infrastructure. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia hasn’t had a political accomplishment, even with the help of its airstrikes, and won’t be able to bring its preferred person to Sanaa or Aden and make him the ruler.

Al-Monitor:  As the crises rages, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are getting stronger in Yemen. In your view, will Yemen face a destiny like Syria’s?

Ghoreishi:  Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups affiliated with [the Islamic State (IS)] and Ansar al-Sharia are using the turbulent situation caused by the Saudi airstrikes to their advantage. But the situation in Yemen is different from Syria.

Al-Monitor:  You don’t think there is a likelihood of the emergence of a terrorist group like the Islamic State in Yemen to take control of the country?

Ghoreishi:  If Saudi Arabia keeps attacking Yemen, a window of opportunity might open to al-Qaeda and [IS] or Ansar al-Sharia. What happened in al-Mukalla is an example of that. But I assume Yemen is no Syria, and groups like [IS] won’t be able to capture large parts of this country.

Al-Monitor:  During the crisis in Yemen, there were reports about Algeria and Oman mediation between the involved parties, but they were all to no avail. Why?

Ghoreishi:  Mediations are still underway, but we can’t expect them to produce any results owing to the complex situation in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s full-scale air war. If Saudi Arabia and its agents in Yemen are planning to resolve the crisis and implement Resolution 2216 by war and airstrikes, nothing will happen, and they won’t achieve any of their goals. Ansar Allah and the Zaydis are irremovable from politics, because they are rooted in Yemen and its people.

Al-Monitor:  Regarding the threat of Iran and Saudi Arabia going against each other over the Yemeni issue, do you think a direct military confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh is a possibility?

Ghoreishi:  So far, Iran hasn’t threatened Saudi Arabia with a military strike, and I doubt that Saudi Arabia has done so either. If some military commanders in Iran have said something, one should know that they are not the spokesmen of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran wants a direct confrontation, because it is not in their interest.

Al-Monitor:  Is there any hope of reaching a sustainable cease-fire and formation of an inclusive government?

Ghoreishi:  Wars definitely don’t last forever. Ansar Allah, as they themselves have announced, is ready to start a dialogue and inter-Yemeni talks under the supervision of the UN. Negotiations could begin in Geneva or Sanaa and might lay the foundation for the establishment of an inclusive government, providing that the other side shows a readiness for talks. Iran has also presented its proposals and repeatedly supported inter-Yemeni talks.

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