Lenderking in Riyadh and Muscat in search of Yemen deal

The Houthis’ response to entreaties for ceasefire depend to a great extent on Iran’s assessment of the results of the talks in Vienna, experts say.
Friday 30/04/2021
Fighter loyal to Yemen’s internationally-recognised government mans a position near the frontline facing Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country’s northeastern province of Marib, on April 27, 2021. (AFP)
Fighter loyal to Yemen’s internationally-recognised government mans a position near the frontline facing Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country’s northeastern province of Marib, on April 27, 2021. (AFP)

ADEN - US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking is expected to focus in his new regional tour on achieving an humanitarian truce and a ceasefire in Yemen before moving on to political negotiations.

The American envoy has begun his tour in Saudi Arabia and will later visit the sultanate of Oman.

The fact that Lenderking’s visit to Muscat coincided with that of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who met a Houthi delegation headed by the group’s spokesman Muhammad AbdulSalam,  sparked speculation about the connection between the negotiations  for a truce in Yemen with the ongoing talks in Vienna over the Iranian nuclear programme.

Arab sources closely following the Yemeni crisis said that Zarif was keen to visit Muscat and hold a long discussion with Houthi leaders there.

According to the sources, Zarif is said to have assured the Houthis that Iran attaches great importance to their Marib offensive. But he also cautioned the rebels that they might have to accept some concessions, including a halt to their attack on Marib, if an Iranian-American agreement is reached in Vienna.

Lenderking’s meetings “will focus on ensuring the regular and unimpeded delivery of commodities and humanitarian assistance throughout Yemen, promoting a lasting ceasefire and transitioning the parties to a political process”, pointed out the State Department.

The statement also pointed out that the special envoy “will build on the international consensus to halt the Houthi offensive on Marib, which only worsens the humanitarian crisis threatening the Yemeni people”.

Yemeni sources warned that Lenderking’s efforts aimed at separating the humanitarian dimension from political steps could serve the interests of the Houthis, who would like to see less pressure put on them in the areas under their control, without having to make any concessions or clearly commit themselves to the political settlement process.

Previous efforts by the US and UN envoys have collided with the Houthis’ intransigence and rejection of the UN “joint declaration” which was approved by the Yemeni and Saudi governments. This rejection has so far hindered the international effort to stop the war in Yemen and revive the political process.

The Houthis took advantage of the push by the international community and the United Nations to set new conditions, while continuing their intensive attack on the Marib Governorate, ignoring all calls to stop their offensive which threatened to wholly undermine the political settlement process.

The Houthis demand a halt to the military operations of the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, the reopening of Sana’a airport and the easing of restrictions on the port of Hodeidah as a condition for cooperating with international mediation. Their demands were however expected to be at the core of talks to be held between the internationally-recognised government and the Iranian-backed Houthi militias.

Analysts believe international complacency towards the Houthi escalation of their conditions has led to the Iran-backed militias raising the ceiling of their demands especially after Washington’s removal of the Houthis from the US list of terrorist organisations.

The analysts add that the failure of the US and UN envoys to extract any concessions from the Houthis transferred all the pressures onto the legitimate Yemeni government and the Arab coalition, as clearly displayed by the agenda of the US envoy’s visit.

Reflecting a striking similarity between the agenda for the new US envoy’s trip and the list of Houthi requirements, Muhammad Abdul Salam tweeted:

“Any positive discourse towards Yemen depends on its practical implementation through the lifting of the blockade and giving priority to the humanitarian aspects, as they are urgent issues that concern the needs of all the Yemeni people, and such a step will be welcomed and will be evidence of the progress towards peace in Yemen.”

Abdul-Salam’s words came a day after his meeting with Javad Zarif, who renewed “Iran’s full support for the ceasefire and the start of a Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue,” in a statement understood as a message from Zarif to Lenderking and to the Biden administration that Tehran is ready to discuss a solution in Yemen, if that could help reach a settlement in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program.

Yemeni Information Minister Moammar Al-Eryani criticised the statements made by the Iranian foreign minister during his meeting with the Houthi negotiating delegation in Muscat,  calling them an “attempt at deception”.

Eryani said in a statement to the Yemeni News Agency that “these statements aim to cover up the role that Tehran played in managing the Houthi coup, the eruption of the war in Yemen, the exacerbation of humanitarian predicament of Yemenis and the undermining of de-escalation efforts.”

Izzat Mustafa, head of the Fanar Centre for Policy Research, described the meeting of Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif with the official spokesman for the Houthi militias and the head of their negotiating delegation, as conveying a new message to Washington according to which Iran is able to gear the Houthis towards accepting a political settlement and that the Houthi channels of communication with Iran are always open

Mustafa further told The Arab Weekly that developments in the Yemeni conflict are mostly linked to the Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear programme, and that Zarif’s public and formal meeting with Muhammad  Abdul-Salam may be part of Iran’s assurances to the United States that it is ready to work with Washington on regional conflicts, especially the war in Yemen.

Mustafa did not rule out the envoy’s possible success in obtaining formal acceptance by the Houthis of a ceasefire and their approval of the Saudi initiative. But he  linked such an outcome to the conclusions reached by the Iranians about talks in Vienna.

However, he warned that Iran’s moves in conjunction with the Houthis could just be a “ploy by Zarif to speed up the Vienna talks.”