WASHINGTON — The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could curb weapons smuggling to Yemen’s Houthis and turn up the pressure on the rebels after eight years of grueling war, a senior US government official told Al-Monitor.
The agreement reached in China this month to resume diplomatic relations between the two regional heavyweights will be put to the test in Yemen, a venue for proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition supporting the internationally recognized government, and Iran, which backs the country’s Houthi rebels.
The bloody conflict, which since 2014 has displaced millions of people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine, had slowed to a stalemate by the time a UN-mediated truce was reached last April. Before it collapsed in October, the cease-fire brought a sharp reduction in casualties, established limited international flights from the airport in rebel-held Sanaa and increased fuel shipments to the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah.
The exact terms of the Saudi-Iranian agreement are not public, but a spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the United Nations told Al-Monitor that while the main focus is normalized ties with the kingdom, “it is expected that the situation in Yemen will benefit from this agreement.”
It’s widely believed the Saudis were given some assurances that their archrival would exert pressure on the Houthis in Yemen, where Western officials say military aid from Iran has bolstered the militants’ war effort and their cross-border attacks on neighboring Saudi Arabia.
“The Houthis, quite honestly, I think are feeling some pressure because of the Saudi-Iranian deal,” the senior US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They know that if that goes forward, it means they're going to get less from the Iranians in terms of weapons.”
"Visitors to Tehran go and get very nice things said about [the Iranians'] commitment to Yemen, and then the smuggling continues," the official said. "Are we going to be able to break this pattern now, finally, with this agreement? I think that's what we're hoping."
Western naval forces in recent months have seized assault rifles, ammunition and other weapons stashed on multiple vessels that appeared destined for Yemen. Tehran says it provides political support to the Houthis but denies providing them with training and weaponry that would violate a UN arms embargo imposed in 2015.
To prevent the flow of illegal arms, commercial imports at Yemen’s Red Sea ports are subject to a UN inspections regime that is tightly enforced by the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government. Ending the inspections is a key Houthi demand in their direct talks with Saudi Arabia that the two sides revived last year.
Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies think tank, said that Yemeni merchants say they haven’t been subjected to the Saudi-led coalition’s extra layer of vetting at the Houthi-held port of Hodeidah, where commercial vessels typically are forced to wait in a holding area before they are cleared to dock.
The US official speaking to Al-Monitor said no agreement has been reached but that “the bureaucratic processes for ships to offload into Hodeidah has been reduced.”
“I think the Saudis in particular are wanting to show some flexibility that they understand that while there is no blockade, there are extra steps that can be reduced,” the official said.
In addition to the lifting of restrictions at the Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port, the Houthis have also demanded civil servant and military salaries in areas under their control be paid for using the government’s oil and gas revenues.
“The ceiling they are negotiating from is extremely high,” said Iryani. “I'm sure the Iranians are keen to keep the deal with Saudi Arabia, which would mean that the Iranians will do their best to convince the Houthis to make reasonable demands.”
The Biden administration has also urged the Houthis to show more flexibility in truce talks and has engaged with its officials hosted in the Omani capital of Muscat.
“They are a group whose needs need to be taken into consideration, so it's very important to maintain direct contact without going through other intermediaries,” the senior US official said of the Houthis.
A recent flare-up in the fighting, including in Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province, is seen as an attempt by the Houthis to improve their bargaining power in negotiations. Last week, Yemen’s defense minister narrowly survived a drone attack on his convoy in the southwestern city of Taiz that was blamed on the Houthis. The rebels also announced a five-day suspension of humanitarian flights this week from the Sanaa airport.
“It's the Houthis jockeying for every bit of advantage,” the senior US government official said of the escalation.
While a positive first step, experts say a potential deal reached by the Houthis and Saudi Arabia wouldn’t address the longstanding grievances held by Yemen’s other key players. It also remains unclear whether the Saudi-Houthi negotiations can actually pave the way for UN-led talks that would include the government’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) and other Yemeni rivals.
“I can’t see why the Houthis will be incentivized to engage in a UN-led peace process if they already got what they wanted from the Saudis,” said Veena Ali-Khan, a Yemen-focused researcher at the International Crisis Group. “And the PLC, they want to be involved in the discussions, but they still do not have a clear negotiating strategy.”
The patchwork of players excluded from the Saudi-Houthi negotiations include the eight-member PLC and Yemen's main separatist group, the Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council, which has said it won’t abide by any deals reached on issues of governance, resources or security in the south.
The senior US official said Washington is pursuing “a comprehensive deal” to end Yemen’s multifaceted war — not just Saudi Arabia’s involvement in it — which will ultimately require peace talks that are representative of all Yemenis.
“Saudis and Iran talking, Saudis and the Houthis talking — these can get us very far but don't get us to the finish line,” the official said. “You’ve got to create the platform for Yemenis to be able to meet together.”