Biden Easing U.S. Role in Yemen War Raises Prospects of Iran Diplomacy

President Joe Biden has taken an early initiative to ease U.S. participation in the war in Yemen and shift efforts toward finding a diplomatic solution, a move that has drawn the attention of Iran, which also plays a role in the conflict.

As Washington and Tehran navigate high-stakes nuclear diplomacy, their mutual involvement in Yemen raises the prospect of a separate path toward engagement. But experts are divided as to whether this presents a feasible solution as long as the U.S. continues a maximalist approach to the nuclear agreement first reached by the two countries and other major powers in 2015.

That same year, Saudi Arabia launched a war against the Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebels of Yemen's Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthi movement, a group accused of receiving direct support from Iran. The conflict has largely fallen to the sidelines of U.S. foreign policy, only occasionally surfacing as lawmakers sought to curb Washington's assistance to a bombing campaign that has had serious humanitarian consequences.

While efforts to cease U.S. support were suppressed under former President Donald Trump, the Biden administration just weeks into office has suspended offensive aid for the Saudi-led war effort. The official reasoning cited civilian casualty concerns, but one former official says there's an additional underlying goal—setting the stage for diplomacy with Iran as the two countries grapple with the nuclear deal crisis surrounding the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"In my view, the Biden administration believes that a successful effort to end the fighting in Yemen and return to a political process there can contribute directly to overall reduction of tensions in the region," Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who serves today as senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, told Newsweek.

Such a strategy means "opening the door to re-engaging with Iran on a full range of issues, including the nuclear file," he explained.

The landmark JCPOA agreement was signed in July 2015 under former President Barack Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president. It paved the way for a lifting of global sanctions against Iran in exchange for a strict curbing of the country's nuclear program.

Only months earlier, as negotiations among China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. were being finalized to enter the JCPOA, Saudi Arabia and allies including the United Arab Emirates launched a campaign to try driving Ansar Allah from Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen.

But as the war dragged on with no conclusive victories for either side, the Trump administration expanded support for the Saudi-led endeavor. Then, in May 2018, the White House abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and imposed harsh restrictions that removed investment by the U.S. and many other countries out of the Islamic Republic.

Iran has since retaliated by enriching uranium at higher levels, citing a clause in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 that accompanied the JCPOA and allows Tehran to suspend some of its obligations in the face of noncompliance by other parties.

Though Biden has quickly reversed the Obama-era policy of backing Saudi Arabia's attacks in Yemen, he's been less willing to significantly back away from Trump's policy of sanctions against Iran. Today, the new administration has said it will not reenter the agreement as promised until Iran first reinstates its commitments, something Tehran says it won't do until Washington rejoins the deal.

The impasse runs the risk of allowing the JCPOA to collapse altogether.

Rather than engage on the nuclear deal directly, however, the Biden administration appears to have taken an indirect route by addressing another high-profile issue in U.S.-Iran relations since 2015, the war in Yemen.

Feierstein argued it's "a reasonable point of view."

"By taking a major point of friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia off the table, our friends and partners in the region will view positive U.S. moves towards Iran as less threatening to their own security interests," he said. "Beyond the question of U.S.-Iranian negotiations, a successful Yemen initiative could also open opportunities for direct engagement among the regional states, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran to address regional security issues in parallel with the U.S."

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Ansar Allah spokesperson Mohammad Abdul Salam meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran in this image shared August 13, 2019. Iran's top authority declared his support for the Zaidi Shiite Muslim movement, but both parties deny direct military ties. Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran

Both the war in Yemen and the JCPOA dispute have contributed to a worsening security situation across the Persian Gulf and in the broader Middle East.

A crucial Biden appointment may provide a glimpse into the direction he intends to take U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Robert Malley, head of the International Crisis Group, a former Obama adviser who has supported the nuclear deal and opposed the U.S. role in Yemen, has been named as a special envoy for Iran.

"In an ideal world, there would be complementarity to the new administration's different policy strands on Iran, Saudi and Yemen," Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Newsweek.

"They'd negotiate a return to the Iran deal using the prospect of sanctions relief to get Tehran back into compliance," he said. "And they'd use a peace process in Yemen, which they are now unambiguous in saying is the only way the war will end there, to prove that they are capable of finding common ground between the Saudis and Iranians to end regional conflict."

Salisbury, who has consulted for the U.K.'s former Department for International Development and international organizations such as the United Nations, cautioned, however, that "the devil is in the details," and that getting all actors on board would be no simple feat.

"In Yemen, the biggest challenge will be finding an approach that generates buy-in from all the different local groups involved in the war," Salisbury said. "That's much harder than ending support for the war or undoing terror designations. It's a long, hard slog. Are they willing and capable of doing that?"

This view was shared by Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who has done extensive fieldwork in Yemen and other countries of the Middle East.

"Even in an ideal world, from my perspective, where all foreign countries agreed to stop funding violence in Yemen, and to fully withdraw militarily, and to sort of allow Yemen its sovereignty back, the war would not end, of course," she told Newsweek. "The calculus would shift, and factions on the ground would have to make decisions based on their own resources, and not the fact that they keep receiving all these resources from elsewhere."

As long as it remains unclear the extent to which the U.S. is really pulling out of the Yemen conflict or supporting a resolution, other players are unlikely to make any moves in the name of peace. A frozen nuclear deal process adds to the inertia.

"Any efforts by Biden or the international community or anyone to try to get foreign powers, Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, specifically, as well as other members of the Arab Coalition that are still involved to the extent that they are," she said, "they are not going to be willing to pull back as long as they continue to see the others continuing to be involved, and so I think Yemen may end up sort of being a hostage to the JCPOA and the lack of movement there."

Yemen's warring sides have, predictably, expressed opposite reactions to Biden's Yemen policies. The internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has sought robust U.S. assistance for its ally and primary supporter, Saudi Arabia.

Hadi championed the Trump administration's foreign terrorist organization designation of Ansar Allah, which wants the U.S. to pressure its allies to end the war and allow for assistance to flow into the war-torn and destitute nation.

"The true position as it relates to Yemen is to stop the war and lift the siege," Ansar Allah spokesperson Mohammad Abdul Salam recently told Newsweek. "This will address all the negative humanitarian and military effects and will allow the Yemeni political process to begin."

yemen, clashes, ansar, allah, government, marib
Smoke billows during clashes between forces loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Iran-aligned Ansar Allah rebel fighters in the Al-Jadaan area about 50 kilometers northwest of Marib in central Yemen on February 11. Up to 80% of the country's population resides in areas under Ansar Allah control despite the exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi retaining international recognition. MUMEN KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations and a number of humanitarian groups involved in aid to victims of the conflict agree that an expeditious end to hostilities is the only way to alleviate the suffering of millions of Yemenis and bring stability to a nation also afflicted with poverty, sickness and famine.

In a bid to advance this approach, U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Grifftih traveled to Tehran this past week to discuss the situation with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The two "discussed the urgent need to make progress towards a nationwide ceasefire, the opening of Sana'a airport and the easing of restrictions on Hudaydah ports," and the U.N. official "welcomed the expression of Iran's support towards the U.N.'s efforts to end the conflict in Yemen," according to a readout sent to Newsweek by Griffith's office.

Asked about media reports suggesting that the U.N. envoy may have carried a message from the new U.S. administration, a spokesperson declined to comment on the contents of the meeting. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh roundly rejected this notion, however.

"The visit by the U.N. Secretary General's special envoy for Yemen had nothing to do with the new U.S. administration's recent stances, and he did not carry any message from Washington to Tehran," Khatibzadeh told a press conference Wednesday in Tehran.

Meanwhile, Zarif's special assistant for political affairs Ali-Asghar Khaji, who also attended the meeting with Griffith, "highlighted the miserable situation of the resilient people of Yemen and the very difficult conditions imposed on them due to war and a cruel economic siege, and called for further intervention by the U.N. and the international community to stop the war and lift the inhumane blockade," according to an Iranian Foreign Ministry readout.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Pouya Alimagham, an author and Middle East historian, joined the global calls for action on Yemen. He argued that Washington should press Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to halt the conflict, regardless of the pace of JCPOA dealings.

"The Saudi-Emirate war has not yielded any political results, and has instead only fostered the world's worst humanitarian crisis in the region's poorest nation," Alimagham told Newsweek. "In that vein, there is simply no reason as to why the war should continue. Every indicator suggests that it should not have commenced in the first place, and should have ended long ago at the least."

When it comes to the nuclear deal, he feels it is the U.S. side that needs to soften it's "hardline" stance, as it would enable a return by both parties.

"I think a phased return in which the U.S. initiates a nominal step, such as removing some sanctions, could very well set in motion a series of events that leads to both returning to full compliance," Alimagham said.

"To save face, the Biden administration can lift some sanctions in the name of humanitarian aid; the Trump administration had tightened sanctions on Iran at the height of the pandemic, for which Iran was the region's epicenter," he said. "Should that happen, Iran would likely respond by taking nominal steps in the direction of returning to compliance."

But to-date there has been no sign of movement in the U.S. stance.

In a statement sent last week to Newsweek, State Department spokesperson Ned Price outlined a position that reiterated the demand that Tehran make the first move.

"If Iran comes back in strict compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA," Price said, "the United States would do so as well in order to build a longer and stronger deal that also addresses other areas of concern."

He criticized the approach taken by the Trump administration, while expressing hope for a diplomatic solution.

"We believe the Maximum Pressure campaign has failed, as Iran has both accelerated its nuclear program and intensified its regional activities," Price said. "The President and Secretary of State are determined to resume diplomacy as a more effective means of achieving our goals. As for the details of how this can be achieved, we intend to consult closely with congress, our allies and partners."

us, iran, china, russia, meeting, syria
Representatives of the United States, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United Nations meet at the Hotel Imperial on October 30, 2015 in Vienna, Austria to discuss solutions to the conflict in Syria. The 2015 nuclear deal and common efforts to defeat ISIS helped to usher in a short-lived effort to address Middle East issues among allies, partners and rivals, but a Saudi-Iran split and the election of President Donald Trump contributed to growing factionalism. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has emphasized that U.S.-Iran engagement would have to address a range of issues beyond just the JCPOA. Price reiterated to reporters Thursday that an improved deal with Iran would serve as "a platform to build and to negotiate follow-on agreements to address other areas of Iran's malign activity."

The phrase "malign" when applied by the U.S. to Iran typically refers to the country's support for various Middle East militias, including Ansar Allah, as well as the development of missile technology, some of which the U.S. has linked to the Yemen conflict.

Blinken used the same word Friday to describe Ansar Allah's actions in Yemen in a separate statement in which he said the U.S. would "remain committed to helping U.S. partners in the Gulf defend themselves, including against threats arising from Yemen, many of which are carried out with the support of Iran."

More than four decades into their rivalry, Washington and Tehran remain perhaps as far away as ever on regional issues, and the U.S. exit from the JCPOA has broken fledgling trust in the West that developed in its nascent stages nearly six years ago.

Mohsen Milani, executive director of the University of South Florida's Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies, said "Iran surely welcomes, as it must, this new U.S posture" on Yemen, but more would be needed to sway Tehran on the nuclear deal.

"This move by itself is insufficient to bring Iran back to the negotiating table," Milani told Newsweek. "Iran's top national security priority is removal of the crippling U.S. sanctions."

He argued that the path to U.S.-Iran cooperation on Yemen runs through the JCPOA, not vice versa.

"Should the U.S. and Iran make satisfactory progress toward resolving the nuclear impasse, then Iran's regional policies could be put on the negotiating table," he said. "In that case, Yemen would be the ideal and easiest issue to start the negotiations because Yemen is not strategically as important for Iran as Iraq, Lebanon or Syria are."