On his return from his most recent tour to the region last week, which included Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Jordan, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking concluded that the rebel Ansarullah (Houthi) Movement was mostly to blame for the ongoing hostilities in Yemen.
“While there are numerous problematic actors inside Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire... Instead, the Houthis continue a devastating offensive on Marib that is condemned by the international community and leaves the Houthis increasingly isolated,” a US State Department press release said.
Washington imposed sanctions on Houthi leaders responsible for continuing the siege of Marib last month. Following Lenderking’s inability to achieve a breakthrough, the US now appears to be wavering between upping the pressure on the Houthis or offering them incentives to commit to a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, it has added its voice to international criticisms of the Houthis’ refusal to cooperate with the UN so that inspectors can access the FSO Safer, an oil tanker near the port of Hodeida that experts have warned constitutes two major disasters waiting to happen.
Abandoned over five years ago and with over a million barrels of oil aboard, should the ship break up it would cause a catastrophic oil spill that experts warn would destroy Red Sea ecosystems and ruin the fishing industry in the area. At the same time, explosive gas in the ship’s storage tanks, if left unmanaged, could erupt under the intense summer heat, causing a second catastrophe.
Heightening fears of an explosion are rumours that the Houthis have planted mines near the vessel to prevent access to it. The Houthis want the UN to agree to allow them to sell the oil on the tanker before allowing in inspectors. The UN Security Council in an urgent session last week called on the Houthis to let inspectors visit the tanker “without further delay” in order to determine the risks and identify what steps to take, whether with regard to maintenance or siphoning off the fuel before it is too late.
Lenderking’s peace-making tour of the region coincided with another attempt by UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths to promote a ceasefire agreement. He also failed to achieve concrete results from his last round of talks with Houthi leaders in Sanaa.
After Lenderking’s return, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken telephoned Omani Foreign Minister Sayed Badr Al-Busaidi to discuss regional issues, including the Yemeni crisis. The two men underscored the “importance of an immediate, comprehensive ceasefire to help bring the war in Yemen and the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people to an end,” said State Department Spokesperson Ned Price.
Although Biden has committed to backing UN efforts, some Congress members have criticised his administration for revoking the terrorist designation of the Houthis too soon. They said that the US should have used the removal of the designation as leverage in order to obtain concessions from the Houthis. Instead of taking Biden’s gesture as an incentive to deescalate, the latter have steadily escalated their military campaign in Marib.
In contrast to the frustration at the situation in Yemen, cautious optimism surrounds progress in the talks between Washington and Tehran over the Iranian nuclear programme. According to an article in the US journal Politico on Friday, the two sides have neared a new formula for returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Iran signed with the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) in 2015.
After the fifth round of talks last week, negotiators took a break, but they had previously drawn up a document laying out various options on how to solve remaining differences and had agreed to hold a sixth round of talks to sort them out.
Among the main points of contention are how to handle Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, questions surrounding access to and mechanisms for inspecting Iranian nuclear sites, and which sanctions the US should repeal in exchange for Iran’s return to compliance. The US and Europeans are also pushing to include a mention of follow-up talks that would address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its broader regional behaviour.
Many believe that round six of the talks in Vienna will bring the hoped-for breakthrough. The US State Department has stressed that Washington is determined to make progress towards a deal with Iran. Washington’s Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also made it clear that the US was “ready to return to the agreement if Iran returns to full compliance with its nuclear commitments,” also describing the talks in Vienna as “fruitful.”
Iran has been equally upbeat. Politico reported that its Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, felt positive about the results of the last round and had said that “the next round of the talks in Vienna logically could, and should, be the final round.” On 4 June, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced on his Twitter account that he had agreed in a telephone call with UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab on the “need to resume full compliance with the JCPOA.”
Due to Tehran’s influence on the Houthis there is plenty of room for interplay between progress in Vienna and the disheartening situation in Yemen. This raises the prospect of what observers have termed a “regional solution” to the Yemeni crisis, a process in which regional actors such as Riyadh and Tehran would take the lead and would involve trade-offs in other regional hotspots with an eye to defusing conflicts and reducing the temperature in the region.
The Saudi-Iranian talks on normalising relations, severed five years ago, also offer hope in this regard. Although the talks, which began in April, have been described as “exploratory,” the participants appear to have established a framework that reflects their desire to stay the course.
Both sides are playing their cards close to their chest. An Iranian diplomatic source told the Iranian news site Etemad Online that “the differences between the two sides are not few. We will need a lot of time to study them and find objective solutions to them.” But the tone is encouraging compared to the dangerously spiralling tensions between the two sides earlier this year.
Both Griffiths’s and Lenderking’s statements suggest that the Houthis have rejected the Saudi ceasefire initiative. This was not unexpected, since ultimately the Houthis seek a US-sponsored agreement that will override the frames of reference of previous agreements and proposals – UN Security Council Resolution 2216, the Gulf Initiative and the outputs of the Yemeni National Dialogue.
However, it is unlikely that any new proposals would give them more incentives than those the Saudis offered in March 2021. According to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan, the initiative proposes easing the blockade on Hodeida and depositing tax revenues from the port in a joint account with the Yemeni Central Bank, as well as lifting the blockade on Sanaa International Airport and permitting direct flights between the Yemeni capital and a number of regional and international destinations.
As soon as the Houthis agree to the proposal, a ceasefire would go into effect, paving the way to the resumption of negotiations in the framework of the above-mentioned frames of reference.
Regarding how the situation in Yemen might play out from there, one possibility might be a “cascade scenario”: some change on the ground that produces some progress in talks that, in turn, allows Iran to show some flexibility under the new government that will assume power after the forthcoming elections in Iran.
The Saudi-Iranian talks would come into play here in the context of the “regional solution” and the interplay between understandings in Yemen and the situations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. However, progress would also inevitably be linked to progress in the nuclear talks, in which the members of the P5+1 group are keen to include provisions related to Tehran’s regional behaviour.
At this stage, it is difficult to determine how Tehran plans to handle these issues in the larger international context. To what extent, for example, would it be willing to see a trade-off in Yemen in exchange for benefits in other areas? Whatever Iran decides, it can be assumed that the Houthis will be guaranteed a role in the political arrangements for Yemen’s future.
In the likely event that Houthi forces prove unable to settle the battle for Marib in their favour, Tehran might then use its leverage to help the Houthis obtain a more advantageous position in a permanent ceasefire agreement that would lay the groundwork for a UN-sponsored interim phase backed by the US and other international and regional powers.
Perhaps these arrangements could call for an interim power-sharing formula between the Yemeni government and the Houthis as part of a roadmap towards general elections and permanent institutional arrangements.
An alternative is what might be called the “tactical scenario”: a truce preparatory to a more permanent ceasefire with incentives offered to the Houthis in exchange for de-escalation and a solution to the crisis of the FSO Safer.
It should be borne in mind that resolving this latter crisis is far from straightforward, however. Even if the Houthis come to an agreement allowing UN inspectors on board, there are likely to be second and third-phase negotiations over the fate of the ship and the oil on board. The Houthis will want to try to negotiate for a share of this oil in order to compensate for the fuel, transport and economic blockades the Saudi-led pro-government coalition has been imposing in Yemen.
There also remains the possibility of less-optimistic scenarios. These could also be linked to progress in Vienna and especially to the extent to which that process addresses Iranian involvement in various regional issues, not least the Yemeni crisis.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks about annexes to the agreement addressing the Iranian missile programme, but without mentioning Iran’s regional behaviour, do not bode well, especially given how they conflict with statements Washington made before the Vienna talks began.
This raises the issue of the increased manoeuverability that Iran could gain upon its return to the nuclear agreement without provisions obliging it to rein in its regional behaviour. If, for example, negotiations on the Iranian missile programme are deferred, Iran might take advantage of its greater manoeuverability in the interim to cause obstructions on the Houthi front, thereby enhancing its negotiating position with respect to the P5+1.
Some chance exists for overcoming the seemingly endless frustration on the Yemeni front if Tehran and Washington can come to an understanding on the Iranian nuclear question. However, that hope still rests on many hard-to-predict variables, not least whether a breakthrough in the sixth round of talks in Vienna is really around the corner.
Tehran possesses the ability to rein in the Houthi militia and to influence the Houthis’ political decisions. If and how it uses this influence also hinges on the give-and-take in the framework of the “regional solution” that now appears to be the option that these and other regional stakeholders have decided to pursue.
But much will depend on how the war plays out on the ground, especially if either side holds on to the hope that it can obtain a decisive upper hand despite the years of experience that should tell them that this is as remote as ever.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly