Iran is sending conflicting messages on the Yemeni crisis as it struggles to offset the pressures it is facing with respect to the Syrian question and the nuclear deal issue.
On the one hand, on 3 May, during talks on regional issues in Rome with Italy, Germany, France and Britain, it offered to play an effective and active role in resolving the Yemeni crisis.
More recently, in an escalatory bid, its regional allies Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Martyrs of Sayed Brigades in Iraq offered to transfer their combat expertise from Syria to Yemen in order to come to the rescue of the Houthis who are on the retreat in the face of the advance of the Yemeni national army and the resistance factions backed by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition to restore the legitimate government in Yemen.
An immediate reading of these conflict messages suggests that they are mutually exclusive: if invited to enact its peace-making initiative it will abandon the escalatory bid.
However, the record of Iranian experiences offers a different reading: it will try to keep both options going at the same time in order to retain the greatest possible manoeuvrability on all fronts and to use them tactically in order to augment its gains in one arena and/or compensate for its losses in another.
With regard to the diplomatic message, it was voiced by Hussein Jaberi Ansari, head of the Iranian delegation to talks in Rome on developments in the Middle East.
Ansari, a senior assistant to the Iranian foreign minister, expressed his government’s readiness to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table. This was not the first time Iran mentioned such an offer.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi spoke of it in an interview on the Iranian television: “The nuclear agreement is not connected with regional issues… Iran will not enter into talks over its influence in the region except in connection with Yemen due to the humanitarian situation there.”
Such initiatives and statements are revealing in a number of respects.
Firstly, the use of the Yemeni question in a way that vaunts Iran’s influence over the Houthis is a confession of its active role in the Yemeni civil war which Tehran had persistently denied.
It had continually claimed that it acted as no more than an adviser, despite abundant evidence that it furnished Houthi forces with military and logistic support since the Yemeni Revolution in February 2011 and increasingly after the Houthi coup in September 2014.
Iran supported Houthi missile capacities, above all, in the framework of its drive to strengthen its proxies throughout the region.
Secondly, in addition to heading the Iranian delegation in meetings with the European quartet, Hussein Ansari also headed the Iranian delegation at the Astana talks to promote the Russian-sponsored dialogue with a portion of the Syrian opposition.
What this signifies is that, contrary to Araghchi’s claim, Iran is linking other regional issues to Yemen and not just the nuclear deal.
Thirdly, Araghchi’s justification for linking Yemen to the nuclear deal on the grounds of the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people compel us to consider the role played by Martin Griffiths, UN special envoy for Yemen.
Griffiths hopes to stop the war to make way for a political settlement and make it possible to focus on the humanitarian dimension of the Yemeni crisis.
The Houthis are obstructing that effort as a means to buy time for themselves and for Iran’s devices.
Fourthly, the timing of Ansari’s offer to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table is also significant. It coincided with Israeli strikes against Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.
It was simultaneously informed by Russian moves to regulate and redefine the limits of the Iranian presence in Syria as well as by the fallout of Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.
With regard to the escalatory messages, it is equally important to look at the deliverer.
The first came from Hizbullah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah who, in a recent speech, expressed his sorrow for not being able to fight alongside combatants in the battles on the western coast of Yemen.
“I wish I could be there with you and every brother from the resistance feels the same,” he said, addressing the Houthis.
Ansar Allah leader Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi responded, expressing his gratitude for Nasrallah’s heartfelt solidarity and support for the downtrodden.
The second, which was essentially the same in substance, came from Abu Alaa Al-Walai, secretary general of the Martyrs of Sayed Brigades, which is part of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). Al-Walai declared that he was prepared to fight in Yemen under the command of Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi.
These escalatory messages, like the diplomatic ones, are significant on many levels.
Firstly, they also point to Iranian linkages between regional issues and, given their timing, between these and the nuclear issue.
Secondly, they menace a sectarianisation of the Yemeni crisis along the lines of the Syrian crisis. The Martyrs of Sayed Brigades boasts that its main role in Syria is to defend and protect Shia tombs and shrines.
More significantly, Al-Walai, known for his ardent loyalty to Iran, issued his offer to fight in Yemen during a conference expressly held to promote solidarity with the Houthi movement and in which there were visible sectarian banners and slogans.
Thirdly, the Shia militia march to Yemen would generate an environment conducive to the resurgence of extremist mobilisation on the other side, namely Al-Qaeda, which has been driven back in Yemen, and ISIS, which is looking for new places to set up operations after the defeats it suffered in Iraq and Syria.
Fourthly, Al-Walai’s message reignites concerns over the PMU and their next destination after the Syrian conflict ends. This will present a challenge to the forthcoming Iraqi government due to the fears that led to the assimilation of the PMU into the armed forces.
It is crucial to heed the underlying significances of Iran’s conflicting messages on Yemen in order to pre-empt its attempts to add a new dimension to the conflict that would aggravate and prolong it.
This, in turn, compels the Yemeni government and the coalition that supports it to re-evaluate their management of the crisis militarily and diplomatically, as well as in terms of UN methods in handling the crisis, which some fear may divert the solution process from the aims and intents of international resolutions on Yemen and, specifically, UN Security Council Resolution 2016.
At the same time, it is important to expose the nature of Iranian manoeuvres, especially in terms of its dealings with Europe in the context of the nuclear deal.
Compensating Iran for the losses accrued from the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, without obtaining serious guarantees from Iran that it will refrain from fuelling regional conflicts, will have dangerous consequences.
It will increase Iran’s conflict funding capacities that US sanctions are intended to limit and it will give Iran greater scope to strengthen its escalatory instruments to the detriment of prospects for a diplomatic settlement to the Yemeni crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iran’s double message