Iran-backed Houthi is the winner in Yemen

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) received Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council , Riyadh, April 7, 2022

These are early days and Yemen has witnessed many a ceasefire in its tortuous civil war that began in September 2014 when Houthi forces took over the capital city Sanaa, which was followed by a rapid Houthi takeover of the government. There is a feeling of déjà vu about the 2-month long Ramadan ceasefire that has been announced. 

But then, this can also be a defining moment. The controversial central figure, Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has agreed to “irreversibly” relinquish power to an 8-member transitional council, which will temporarily be in charge of Yemen’s political, military, and security sectors during the transition period until the election of a new president. According to the presidential decree, the newly formed council will have all executive powers and the authority to hold talks with Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis and find a solution to the incessant violence. 

Possibly, the dramatic development can be attributed to a growing Saudi frustration with Hadi, an unpopular figure, who, as Annelle Sheline at the Quincy Institute has pointed out, “had effectively empowered the Houthi rebels and others who opposed his rule.” A second reason could be the groundswell of opinion in the US Congress for ending American support for the Saudi-led military actions in Yemen.  

The two-month-long ceasefire agreement during Ramadan brokered by the UN is an uneasy truce predicated on a delicate balance of forces on the ground. The Zaydi Shia Houthis control the capital city of Sanaa and most of northern Yemen (bordering Saudi Arabia). 

The composition of the transition council does not generate much optimism. It is a body of disparate groups who are united only in their opposition to the Houthis. The Houthis themselves have rejected the council. The probability is high that both protagonists are seeking to re-engage militarily first and try to negotiate from a position of strength. 

But the good part is that the terms of the ceasefire include partial lifting of the blockade of Sanaa airport to allow a handful of commercial flights and of fuel imports through the Hodeida harbour — both are of interest to the Houthis. Also, the framework of discussions drawn up by the UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg of Sweden effectively ignores the existing UN Security Council resolutions which have called for Houthi disarmament and territorial surrender. Interestingly, Washington seems to be backing Grundberg’s pragmatic approach toward the Houthis. 

Fundamentally, the regional alignments and priorities are changing. Saudi Arabia could be looking for an exit from the costly war and the UAE has already rolled back its involvement. Iran’s expected surge following any lifting of sanctions becomes an “X” factor for all regional states, which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt will have to handle in a different way than previously by taking into account the US’ steady disengagement from the region. Unlike the Trump administration, Biden tends to regard the past uncritical support for the Saudi-led war as a delusional mistake. 

This is already a tipping point where the Houthis will negotiate without having to surrender their weaponry. The advantage goes to the Houthis. Equally, Iran emerges as the regional player to gain the most. Its robust support for the Houthis has paid off. To quote the noted ex-CIA Middle East expert and author Bruce Riedel, “Tehran (now) has a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula overlooking the strategic Bab el-Mandab Strait between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.” 

Now, there is also some irony here insofar as the last hump for the Iran nuclear negotiators at Vienna to cross is reportedly the last-minute demand from Tehran that the US should remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from its list of terrorist groups. Indeed, it is the IRGC that is driving the Yemen policy, acting as the Houthis’ friend, philosopher, guide and mentor in waging a lonely war against a phalanx of powerful enemies such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, US, UK, France and so on. 

Tehran tends to see the GCC-Saudi decision to get rid of Hadi as more of a tactical move driven by an acute need to divert public opinion, especially after the recent Houthi attacks on the Aramco facility in Jeddah. To be sure, Iran will question the credibility of the newly-announced council (composed of figures who fought for the Saudi-UAE coalition) and indeed Saudi Arabia’s credentials to host the intra-Yemeni talks. 

Iran has consistently advocated the Houthi peace formula as the most feasible and realistic way to end the war — the cessation of Saudi attacks on Yemen, the complete lifting of the siege and sanctions, a general exchange of prisoners, the reopening of airports and ports, etc. 

In geopolitical terms, the Yemen issue poses an intractable foreign-policy conundrum for the Biden administration. The Houthis are never going to accept terms that require them to give up all power and disarm before there is a political settlement. But for that to happen, the US needs to put pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the present climate when oil is about to be traded for gold, that is easier said than done. 

Second, a Houthi victory will mean the ascendance of Iran in a region straddling one of the world’s most strategic straits. That will be a bitter pill to swallow for a host of regional states, including Israel. But then, the war itself is terribly unpopular on the Hill although the lawmakers would agree that the IRGC is the epitome of international terrorism. 

The lifting of sanctions against Iran will almost certainly boost IRGC’s financial resources and that has profound consequences since Tehran remains wedded to the Axis of Resistance, JCPOA or no JCPOA. However, for the Biden administration, a scenario without a deal with Iran is fraught with the danger of a Middle Eastern war. 

Paradoxically, the Houthis hold the key to a satisfactory denouement. The Biden administration had hopes to wean away the Houthis. In fact, the US never really explored that pathway. Conceivably, Houthis who are fiercely independent, are not controlled by Iran. Who knows? 

That said, Houthis must be much closer today to Tehran than they were seven years ago at the outset of the Saudi intervention. Suffice to say, for a start, the US needs to have a good conversation with Iran.