On November 19, Ibrahim Mohamed al-Dailami, a prominent Houthi official, was certified as Yemen’s Ambassador to Iran. Al-Dailami’s appointment was a symbolic victory for the Houthi movement, which had been courting Iranian diplomatic recognition since 2015. Meanwhile, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Saudi-aligned government predictably derided al-Dailami’s appointment. In an official statement, the Hadi government accused Iran of breaching international law, as UNSC Resolution 2216 explicitly highlights the illegitimacy of the 2014 Houthi coup d’etat.
Iran’s certification of Yemen’s Houthi-aligned ambassador coincides with the intensification of dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis on ending the war in Yemen. Even more, it reflects Tehran’s unease toward the trajectory of Yemen’s peace process. Iran revealed additional disquiet with Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in Yemen’s peace process on November 6 when Tehran condemned the Riyadh Agreement between the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) as a deal that promotes the “Saudi occupation of Yemen.” This condemnation isolated Iran from the international community, which largely welcomed the Riyadh Agreement as a step towards peace and underscored Iran’s obstructionist role in Yemen.
Iran’s desire to contain Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical influence explains the contradiction between its criticisms of Yemen’s tentative peace process and Tehran’s long-standing opposition to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Iranian officials view the war in Yemen as a frontier of Saudi expansionism. They see a unilateral Saudi withdrawal spearheaded by intra-coalitional frictions as a preferable scenario to a Riyadh-led peace settlement.i As the Riyadh Agreement has eased intra-coalitional tensions, Iran views its military alliance with the Houthis as a low-cost, high-impact way to retaliate against Saudi Arabia. It wishes to maintain that lever as long as possible.
Iran is also concerned that a Saudi-brokered peace settlement will institutionalize Hadi’s hold on power. Iranian media outlets commonly describe Hadi as a “fugitive and outgoing president.” Previously, Tehran supported U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s August 2016 plan, under the condition that its implementation would lead to Hadi’s resignation. In response to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to shore up Hadi’s legitimacy, Iran has formalized its support for the Houthis. During his meeting with Houthi chief diplomat Mohammed Abdulsalam in August, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that the “resistance of Yemen’s believing men and women” would establish a “strong government.”
Iran’s desire to prevent a peace settlement conducted on Saudi Arabia’s terms is also reflected in its criticisms of the UN-backed negotiations chaired by British diplomat and Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. The UN’s continued adherence to UNSC Resolution 2216, which blames the Houthis for instigating the Yemeni civil war, is particularly concerning for Iranian policymakers. Prominent members of the Iranian foreign policy community, such as Iran’s former Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Rokhn-Abadi allege that UNSC Resolution 2216 is unduly skewed in favor of Saudi interests and obstructs criticisms of Saudi military conduct in Yemen. Iranian media outlets have also claimed that the UN tends to downplay Saudi Arabia’s perpetration of civilian casualties in Yemen. These outlets further contend that the UN unduly emphasizes the constructive aspects of Saudi Arabia’s policy in Yemen.
Iran’s desire to prevent Saudi Arabia from unilaterally setting the terms of the peace process is clear. Yet, Tehran’s history of limited leverage in Yemen and inability to invest in the country’s economic reconstruction process hinder its ability to protect its interests in Yemen. To overcome these shortcomings, Iran is offering diplomatic assistance to counter negative attention surrounding its support for the Houthis and ensure that its presence in Yemen gains some international acceptance. On October 16, the Speaker of Iran’s Parliament Ali Larijani announced Iran’s intention to mediate in Yemen if Saudi Arabia accepted a political solution. Iranian diplomats have also emphasized their initial reticence about the Houthi offensive on Sana’aii, and highlighted Tehran’s four-point plan for a political solution. This plan, which Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif submitted to the UN in April 2015, calls for an end to Saudi airstrikes, the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people, and a national reconciliation process. These diplomatic gestures convey Iran’s wishes to appear like a constructive player at a time when U.S. policymakers have described Tehran as the chief agent of Yemen’s instability.
There are some indications that Iran’s efforts have increased its prestige as a diplomatic arbiter in Europe and Russia. In early 2018, Iranian officials held a series of talks with counterparts from Germany, France and the United Kingdom on a ceasefire in Yemen. European attendees praised these negotiations. In August 2019, representatives from these three European countries and Italy visited Tehran to discuss the conflict resolution process. The meeting allowed Iran to act as a bridge between Europe and the Houthi movement, as Houthi representatives were also in attendance.
In order to strengthen cooperation between Russia and Iran in Yemen, the special assistant to Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari traveled to Moscow in October 2018 to discuss complementary approaches to the conflict resolution process. Regular consultations between Russian and Iranian officials on events in Yemen followed Ansari’s trip. Russia demonstrated its solidarity with Iran by blocking the December 2018 draft UN Resolution that condemned Tehran’s support for the Houthis. Russia does not wish to legitimize Houthi control over northern Yemen, and also engages regularly with Saudi Arabia on conflict resolution in Yemen. However, Iranian officials positively view Moscow’s willingness to engage Tehran as a constructive actor in Yemen.
In order to further increase its influence over the diplomatic process, there was considerable apprehension in the U.S. and the Gulf region that Iran would encourage Houthi expansionism in southern Yemen. These concerns have proved to be unfounded thus far. The Houthi zone of influence remains confined to Sana’a and its strongholds in northern Yemen. As a Houthi seizure of power in Aden is highly unrealistic, Iranian policymakers now view a power-sharing agreement as the most effective strategy to maintain a presence in Yemen.
Iranian policymakers have informally set two conditions for an acceptable power-sharing agreement in Yemen. First, Iran demands the inclusion of Houthis, either as an official member of Yemen’s governing coalition or as a potent military force operating outside state institutions.iii Second, Iran opposes any agreement that fundamentally changes Yemen’s constitutional structure or results in the country’s partition.iv After the STC seized control of Aden on August 10, the Iranian Foreign Ministry accused Saudi Arabia and the UAE of plotting to “divide and disintegrate” Yemen and emphasized Iran’s support for a “united Yemen.” Iran’s support for Yemeni unity does not preclude dialogue with the STC, as Iranian officials view South Yemen’s support for the 1979 Iranian Revolution and solidarity with Iran during the 1980-88 war with Iraq as precedents for future cooperation.v Despite these legacies, STC-Iran dialogue is unlikely to gain traction unless the STC agrees to de-escalate tensions with the Houthis and accepts autonomy, instead of independence, for southern Yemen.
In order to preserve its interests in Yemen, Iran is outlining a coherent vision for Yemen’s political future and is seeking to entrench itself as an indispensable diplomatic stakeholder in Yemen. As the Saudi Arabia-Houthi negotiations progress, Iran will likely continue acting as a countervailing force against these talks and advocate the creation of a multilateral format that addresses its interests in Yemen.
Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter @SamRamani2.
i Author’s interview with Tehran-based foreign policy analyst, Ali Ahmadi, November 7, 2019.
iiAuthor’s interview with Ali Ahmadi, November 7, 2019.
iiiAuthor’s interview with Abdulsalam Mohammed, the director of the Abaad Center for Studies, a Sana’a-based research institute, November 8, 2019.
ivAuthor’s interview with Sivash Fallahpour, a Tehran-based Journalist and Political Analyst, November 8, 2019.
vAuthor’s interview with Ahmed Atef, a former Yemeni diplomat, November 10, 2019.