Appointment of Houthi ambassador to Iran is bad news for Yemen

Tehran opportunistically endorsed and supported the Houthis as they wage a low-cost but high-yield proxy war against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, in Tehran, August 13. (AFP)
Clear as day. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, in Tehran, August 13. (AFP)

The appointment of Ibrahim Mohamed al-Dailami as Houthi “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary” to Tehran has predictably provoked strong reactions in the Middle East and elsewhere but neither the Houthis nor the regime in Tehran appear particularly concerned about international condemnations.

The question is who will benefit most from the symbolic gesture: the Houthis, who try to appear as independent from foreign powers, or Iran, which just as consistently boasts of its regional influence through proxies? Just as important: How is Iran’s formal recognition of the Houthi “government” likely to affect the fractured Yemeni state?

The appointment of a Houthi “ambassador” was preceded by years of stealth Iranian military, economic and diplomatic support to the Houthis. Relations between Tehran and the Houthis reached a high point August 13 when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei received an official Houthi delegation in Tehran.

Condemning what he described as the “crimes committed by the Saudis and the Emiratis in Yemen,” Khamenei warned: “They are pursuing the goal of dismembering Yemen. One must forcefully resist this conspiracy and defend the territorial integrity of Yemen.”

On August 17, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the rebels’ leader, delivered a speech in which he declared his intention to engage in diplomatic efforts and reach out to “friendly countries, in particular, the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The next day, he appointed Dailami “ambassador” to Tehran and the Iranian Foreign Ministry recognised the appointment. Previously, the Houthis were officially represented in Damascus.

In his first move, Dailami created a Twitter account. As his first “diplomatic” initiative, he started a not-so-diplomatic social media fight with British Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron, who, on August 19, declared on Twitter: “This person [Dailami] has no official position — we will not meet him.”

Dailami tweeted in response: “Michael Aron, UK ambassador to the ‘hotel cabinet’ appears afflicted with political Alzheimer’s. Being outside of Yemen for long, he has forgotten the alphabet of political and diplomatic norms… Meeting you does not honour us.”

While such exchanges have become normal in the age of Twitter diplomacy of US President Donald Trump, they indicate the sensitive nature of the matter: Just as Khamenei accuses Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of trying to dismember Yemen, the British ambassador and associates of the Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi accuse Iran of the same by recognising the Houthi government.

The Emirati-backed southern separatists, currently in control of Aden, constitute a separate entity, whose relations with the Hadi supporters and the Houthis are yet to be determined.

Amid Yemen’s chaos, the Houthis no longer appear so concerned about being depicted as an Iranian proxy. As long as diplomatic, financial and military support from Tehran can help them fight their adversaries and stabilise Houthi rule over some parts of Yemeni territory, they appear willing to run the risk of association with Tehran.

Same goes for Tehran, which opportunistically endorsed and supported the Houthis as they waged a low-cost but high-yield proxy war against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By formally recognising the Houthi government, the Iranian leadership believes it can place itself at the heart of the conflict and a key to solve a crisis it has hitherto taken advantage of.

This is bad news for Yemen, which may once again be separated into several political entities but that may not bring about peace to the hard-tried Yemenis.

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