Tehran plays the Yemen card
Under pressure from the United States and trying hard to persuade the European Union of its willingness to play a positive regional role, Iran is signalling interest in a ceasefire in Yemen.
It is unclear whether Tehran is sacrificing its Houthi allies to keep the Iran nuclear deal or if negotiations are meant to gain time to reverse Houthi setbacks. However, it’s clear the European Union truly wants to believe Tehran’s good intentions.
US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have consistently condemned Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities, its military presence in the Middle East and involvement in the civil war in Yemen.
The last has become a major point of contention between Tehran and Washington. Initially, Tehran dismissed Washington’s allegations but, last November, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari surprisingly acknowledged that Iran provided “advisory assistance” to its allies in Yemen.
After Washington’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear agreement and European attempts to salvage whatever possible of the deal, Iran is facing demands to curtail its nuclear activities, severely limit its ballistic missile programme and minimise its regional military presence and ambitions.
Iran is unwilling or unable to accommodate all of those demands but appears interested in persuading the European Union of its willingness to solve regional crises. Tehran wants the European Union to be a protective shield against the United States and needed to make an affordable concession to the Europeans.
That concession was Yemen. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi on May 8 announced Tehran’s willingness to engage in talks with the European Union about Yemen. However, the Yemen negotiations are being portrayed as separate from the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said during a May 27 news conference: “We discuss the issue of Yemen with the four countries of France, Britain, Germany and Italy and only do so because of the dire humanitarian situation. This negotiation is completely detached from the nuclear negotiations.”
Also in late May, an Iranian delegation led by another deputy foreign minister, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, arrived in Rome. It met with an EU delegation led by Helga Schmid, secretary-general of the European External Action Service. Negotiations took place behind closed doors but it’s known that talks revolved around developments in Yemen.
Ansari told Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting the talks served the purpose of “investigating the scope of the crisis in Yemen in an attempt to solve it.”
“The crisis in Yemen, in particular, the human dimension of it, has reached catastrophic levels and we are witnessing the silent death of an entire nation,” Ansari said: “One of the regional goals of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to try to end this crisis.”
Ansari made his comments May 30 but an unnamed European official had already provided more details to Reuters a day before. The official said: “The Iranians have given indications that they are now willing to offer their services to liaise with the Houthis to move forward.”
The official added: “The Iranians are now at least recognising there is a channel. They obviously aren’t saying they control the Houthis and they never will but they recognise they have a certain influence on them and ready to use those channels. That’s new.”
What neither Ansari nor the anonymous European official pointed out was that Tehran appears to be willing to sacrifice the Houthis to ensure the Europeans serve as a protective shield against the United States. After all, if Tehran considers the war in Yemen a lost cause, abandoning the Houthis would be a small sacrifice. However, it may not only keep the nuclear deal alive, Tehran’s manoeuvre could gain the Houthis valuable time to improve their fortunes.
Europe, at any rate, desperately seems to want to believe.