Iran usually prefers not to publicly confirm that it gives financial or military support to the Houthis in Yemen, but it occasionally hints at it when stakes are high. In recent weeks, the publicized interlocking of Iranian interests in reaching a nuclear deal with the Houthis’ interest in ending the war in Yemen suggests that the Middle East’s security could be severely compromised if the ongoing nuclear talks between the world powers and Tehran falter. As Iran leads the negotiations, it is also calling for an end to the cycle of violence in Yemen, which it blames on a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition against the Houthis.
There are indications that Iran is in a critical stage of potentially reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.
There are indications that Iran is in a critical stage of potentially reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But Tehran is quickly running out of time while playing all its cards in Vienna, the venue for the latest and eighth round of nuclear talks with the world powers. It is yet to reach conclusive results. What is left for Iran, by way of asserting its will in the talks, is to use allies like the Houthis to remind the world of the high cost of a no-deal.
Tehran says it will not accept any accords over and beyond the JCPOA, and that a final agreement hinges on the US making the required decisions to stick to the JCPOA, which Former President Trump pulled out of in 2018 while re-imposing sanctions on Iran.
Iran also wants to ensure that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) do not align their security and military policies over Yemen, or with Israel, in the event that the nuclear talks break down. All three of Iran’s Middle Eastern neighbors are apprehensive about the Houthis’ growing power and Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. As a result, Tehran is demanding that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which seem to be drawing closer to conceding a role for the Houthis, quickly help end the war in Yemen.
Tehran and the Houthis appear to be working in tandem.
Evidently, Tehran and the Houthis appear to be working in tandem while the world powers and Iran have taken a brief break in Vienna to lead consultations at home.
At Tehran’s Friday Prayers in late January, the Houthi chief of Student Cultural Affairs Ahmad al-Shaami addressed large crowds waving Houthi flags. Simultaneously, pro-Houthi demonstrations were held across Iran when the country’s Friday Prayer imams delivered sermons calling on Iranians to support the Houthis and condemn Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Meanwhile, the Houthi-backed National Salvation Government (NSG) Secretary-General Mohammed Al-Atefi also threatened Israel when the group attacked the UAE with missiles. The latest Houthi missile hit UAE targets while Israeli president Isaac Herzog was in Abu Dhabi at the end of January.
Fighting between the UAE and the Houthis to control the Red Sea port of Hodeida also resumed for the first time since 2018 after the group attacked the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot on January 15 and seized an Emirati ship early in the month.
Pro-Houthi demonstrations were held across Iran in late January.
Not surprisingly, the UAE wants the Houthis to be reclassified as terrorists after the Biden administration removed the designation in early 2021. In response, the US is dispatching a guided destroyer to protect the UAE and threatens Houthis with sanctions while calling for a halt to their attacks.
The Houthis are ignoring the US’ plea, signaling that disagreements with Iran or the group have the potential to ignite other conflicts if the two are left isolated in the region or continuously sanctioned by Washington. This defiance, designed to expose the dilemmas of the US deepening involvement in the Middle East, also serves to shame Washington over the limits of its power while it wants to withdraw and distance itself from the Yemen conflict and finalize a nuclear deal with Tehran.
In response, Qatar, which sees the JCPOA as a stabilizing force in the region and believes in a political settlement of the Yemeni conflict, has stepped in to urge for a resolution of regional tensions.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with President Biden on January 31. And days earlier, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. While Iran did not confirm that it discussed the JCPOA with Qatar, it did say that the two sides exchanged views.
A four-point plan includes proposals for a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, Yemeni-Yemeni talks, and the formation of a comprehensive government.
Iran and Qatar also discussed Yemen. In fact, Amir-Abdollahian’s mid-January visit to Qatar was marked by a meeting with NSG chief negotiator Mohammad Abdul Salam to highlight Iranian positions. A four-point plan, forwarded by Iran and still on the table, includes proposals for a ceasefire, immediate humanitarian assistance, Yemeni-Yemeni talks, and the formation of a comprehensive government in the capital Sanaa.
The overlapping of advancing the JCPOA and Yemeni talks thus appears to be a mutual attempt by Iran and the Houthis to challenge not just any potential US opposition to fully reviving the JCPOA, but also the Saudi-UAE coalition if it fails to build a peace agreement over Yemen. Ultimately, the coming weeks will reveal if, by raising the ante, Tehran and the Houthis will succeed in resolving the tensions with their neighbors and the US.