US ices Iran out of Yemen talks

Iranian efforts to send a high-level official to Sweden talks with the Houthis have been rebuffed.

al-monitor Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths and delegates attend the opening press conference on UN-sponsored peace talks for Yemen at Johannesberg Castle in Rimbo, Sweden, Dec. 6, 2018.  Photo by Stina Stjernkvist /TT News Agency/via REUTERS.
Julian Pecquet

Julian Pecquet

@JPecquet_ALM

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Yemen war

Dec 6, 2018

Iran sought to send a high-level official to Yemen peace talks but was rebuffed by the Donald Trump administration, Al-Monitor has learned.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry recently informed Sweden, which is hosting this week's UN-sponsored talks, of its desire to send a senior adviser to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the shuttle diplomacy between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Stockholm. But the request was denied, according to several Iranian sources, because of US pressure.

The State Department would not confirm its role in shutting out Tehran, saying it doesn't detail the contents of its private diplomatic discussions. Neither the Swedish Embassy in Washington nor UN envoy Martin Griffiths responded to requests for comment.

But the State Department did suggest the Iranians are not playing a helpful role.

“If Iran wants to be helpful, the first thing it needs to do is to respect all of the UN arms embargoes and stop providing arms and related materiel and technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance related to military activities to, or for the benefit of, the Houthis,” a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor via email. “Now is the time to replace conflict with compromise in order to bring peace, prosperity and security to Yemen.”

The official that the Iranians had in mind is Hossein Jaberi Ansari, who heads Iranian engagement with Syria but has also staked out a role on Yemen. He previously served as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs before that position was abolished as part of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's restructuring. Last month, Ansari hosted Rashid Khalikov, the UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian partnerships in the Middle East and Central Asia, for talks on the Yemen crisis in Tehran.

Gerald Feierstein, a US ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama, said he hadn't heard about this week's events specifically but was told that the Trump administration has made it clear to the UN that it doesn't want Tehran involved in the Yemen talks. That case was forcefully made to Griffiths during his latest visit to Washington earlier this year, said Feierstein, who noted that the UN envoy has not visited Iran in the run-up to the Sweden talks even as he has traveled to Saudi Arabia, Hadi's main ally.

“I have heard that the Trump administration has basically asked the UN not to engage the Iranians,” Feierstein said. “Fundamentally, the view inside the administration is that the Iranians would not be helpful. Are they going to encourage the Houthis to take steps to tamp down the fighting? Or are they going to be undermining what Martin Griffiths is trying to accomplish?”

The retired diplomat, who is now senior vice president at the Middle East Institute in Washington, cautioned that this week's talks are little more than consultations that could pave the way for eventual peace negotiations through confidence-building measures such as the reopening of the Sanaa airport and the release of prisoners on both sides. He said it was on Iran to demonstrate its commitment to ending the Houthi insurgency if it is to be welcomed as a constructive actor.

“If they want to be included, then they need to say very clearly that they support a diplomatic resolution to the conflict,” Feierstein said. “If you want to be part of the solution, then you have to be part of the solution.”

He said the Obama administration went through a similar debate in 2014 over whether to engage with the Iranians on Syria. In the end, Iran was barred from attending peace talks for more than a year.

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