Tehran’s apparent support for Thursday’s breakthrough in UN-sponsored Yemeni peace talks raises questions about the future of Iran’s involvement in the conflict. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels have agreed to end fighting in and around the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. The Iranian foreign ministry called the ceasefire ‘promising’ and hopes that negotiations scheduled for January will bring forth a final agreement. The fact that the peace talks have made progress is surprising. For most of the four-year old conflict neither side has shown much enthusiasm for a brokered-settlement. Over the last four months that attitude has vanished, in large part due to increasing US-led international pressure on the involved parties to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Whether or not Iran’s support is sincere or purely cosmetic remains to be seen. The progress made in the peace talks, as well as Iran’s public praise for it, indicates there could be a shift in Iran’s Yemen strategy afoot. Tehran’s funding, and material support of the Houthi rebels has been vital to keeping them in the fight for this long. It is a marriage of convenience between the two more than anything else. The relationship between Iran and the Houthis is not deep. There are no historical ties that compel Tehran to support the movement. Iran’s main purpose for investing itself in the Yemeni War was to establish a firm foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, and threaten Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier, along with the vital Red Sea shipping routes. A Houthi victory would ultimately have led to the establishment of a pro-Iranian government in Yemen, and the end result would be a major victory for Tehran in the Great Game being played out between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region.
Unfortunately, the conflict has not gone in Iran’s favor. Saudi-led intervention has made a Houthi victory more unlikely as time goes on. Yemen has become a nation-state besieged by war, and enduring an almost unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Continued backing of the Houthis in the future appears more of a crapshoot for Iran, especially in light of the other major issues the Iranian government is facing both at home and abroad. The chance of a more permanent ceasefire, or peace agreement in the near future provides Iran with an opportunity to walk away from Yemen with a respectable PR victory (provided support for the UN-sponsored talks continues) and its prestige still relatively intact.
Yemen does not hold the same significance for Iran that it did four years ago. Tehran has bigger problems to contend with. Saudi Arabia, despite the recent Khashoggi incident, has taken a hard stand against further Iranian expansion in and around the kingdom. The close relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family has enticed Riyadh to push back against Iranian adventurism, hence Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to end its intervention in Yemen.
Then there is the United States. Iran is dealing with a full court press by the Trump administration to isolate Iran from the global community. To the surprise of many Iranian leaders, the US efforts have been quite successful so far, and show no signs of easing in the future. So, it would make sense for Iran to circle its wagons and hunker down to endure the next wave of US pressure instead of overextending itself in near-hopeless foreign adventures.