Will the Houthis reconcile with Saudi Arabia at Iran’s expense?
SANA'A - “It seems that one day we shall reconcile with Saudi Arabia and have Iran as an enemy.”
Khaled al-Akwa’a is far from alone among Yemeni citizens in expressing such a view after news came that the Saudis and Houthis, who are backed by Iran, are engaged in direct negotiations to end a bloody conflict now in its second year.
Al-Akwa’a’s comments may well reflect the saying that “there is no permanent enemy or permanent friend in politics”.
The first week of March witnessed a turning point in the battle between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels as negotiators from both sides met at the Saudi border town of Abha and agreed on a truce and a prisoner swap.
The surprise negotiations reportedly focused on a border-line ceasefire that excluded the other areas of conflict. They coincided with renewed hopes for United Nations-sponsored peace talks set to resume in Geneva on March 24th.
There have been recent hints that the United States and Russia were preparing the ground for ending the Yemen war on the basis of giving Saudi border security the priority. Both countries, which reportedly have provided the Saudis with important intelligence, fear that this war would allow al-Qaeda to restore its influence and the Islamic State (ISIS) to seize the opportunity to gain a foothold in the embattled country.
Another important development came when Yousef al-Feshi, a member of the Houthis’ Revolutionary Committee, strongly criticised Tehran and said Iranian officials “must be silent and stop exploiting the Yemen file”. The comments, which came a day after the arrival of a Houthi delegation for talks with the Saudi officials, were welcomed as “positive” by the kingdom’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir.
Al-Feshi‘s criticism seemed also to be in response to an Iranian military leader who said his country might send military advisers to Yemen to help the Houthis against the Saudi-led Arab coalition, a statement that reminded of previous Iranian comments that Sana’a had become the fourth Arab capital with allegiance to Tehran.
Political analyst Rashid Haddad said it was better to wait and see before concluding that there was a “change of heart” towards Tehran, for without its support the Yemeni rebels could not have held out for so long.
“Probably, by giving the impression that they have moved away from Iran, the Houthis have opened a window for the Saudis, who have closed the door in the face of Iran,” said Haddad.
Many Houthi leaders admit growing discontent among their followers towards Iran, particularly after Saudi Arabia engaged in the war against them and Tehran failed to deliver on their promises. The Iranians reportedly promised to deposit $2 billion in the Yemeni Central Bank following the Houthi takeover of Sana’a but such a move never materialised.
Other unfulfilled promises include donating a one-year supply of petrol products, building power plants, sending a shipload of medical and food supplies and treating war casualties, who were sent instead to Oman, according to Mohammed el-Imad, a journalist who enjoys close ties with the Houthis. “Iran also lied when it claimed its embassy in Sana’a was attacked from the air while in fact it was intact.”
Political analyst Issam Khleidi explained that there are differing stances within the Houthi movement: one op-minded and politically oriented that thinks that Iran used Yemen to make many gains, while the other is conservative and indoctrinated. It considers Iran as the main supporter of the group and that criticising it openly would backfire.
While Riyadh accuses Iran of providing the Houthis with money and weapons as well as helping them build arms factories, it recognises the legitimacy of the rebel movement, assuring that it has no intention of destroying or isolating the rebels politically, provided that they stay away from Iran and become part of the Yemeni state.
Houthi voices advocating cooperation with Riyadh and rejecting Iran’s interference in Yemen gained more strength when Issam al-Imad, the Qom-based religious leader close to the rebels, spoke of “the possibility of truce and peace with Saudi Arabia”, thus giving a religious validity for the efforts to reconcile with the Saudis and stop the war.
Ahmad Sinan, a political science professor at Sana’a University, viewed the Saudis’ sudden move to talk directly to the Houthis as “a new tactic” dictated by the latest developments in the region, mainly the US-Iran rapprochement and the lifting of sanctions imposed on Tehran. He argued that this approach was an attempt to open a new page with Iran via its Houthi allies.
Also, the Houthis themselves might have ended up realising that they cannot count on Iran, which is simply using Arab Shias for its own interests, according to some political analysts in Sana’a.