A top U.S. diplomat painted a dark picture of Iran’s meddling in Yemen on Wednesday, telling a congressional hearing that Tehran continues to provide “lethal” support for Houthi fighters even after the Biden administration eased pressure on the rebel group by removing them from the State Department’s foreign terrorist list.
There has recently been a “significant increase” in airstrikes carried out by the Houthis, said U.S. Special Envoy Timothy A. Lenderking, who added that cross-border attacks by the Houthis against neighboring Saudi Arabia are also soaring.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the envoy said there have recently been “more Houthi attacks on civilians and other infrastructure in Saudi Arabia than at any other point” in the seven-year war between the Iran-backed rebels and Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. Houthi forces have made significant battlefield gains in recent months but have faced strong resistance in the most recent attack on the strategic city of Marib in the north.
An Iranian spokesman denied that Tehran was fueling the conflict, saying it was the U.S. and the Saudis who were to blame.
“Iran has, time and again, called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Yemen,” a spokesman for Iran’s U.N. mission in New York told the Reuters news agency. “In contrast, the U.S. has been providing the deadliest weapons to those who are using them to kill innocent men, women and children on a daily basis.”
The Biden administration is attempting to put a fresh touch on the complex relationships between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Yemen war and its spiraling humanitarian crisis factoring heavily into the White House’s approach.
Scaling back the Trump administration’s strong tilt toward Riyadh in the conflict, the Biden team has created a window for easing Saudi-Iran tensions, which have threatened to escalate into direct military clashes amid repeated Houthi missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure.
Former diplomatic channels between Riyadh and Tehran have been shuttered since 2016. But there were reports this week of a private meeting between Saudi and Iranian officials in Iraq. Details have been sparse, although the thorny subject of Yemen’s war is said to have been discussed.
The Biden administration is simultaneously seeking to rejuvenate the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran that has foundered since Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from it in 2018. The Saudis themselves are recalibrating their own regional posture after losing an unflinching supporter in Mr. Trump.
Analysts say Iran, meanwhile, has calculated that its own gradual detente with the Saudis could work in Tehran’s favor during renewed nuclear talks with Washington and other world powers. The Iranians may even see cooperation toward a political solution in Yemen as a bargaining chip as they seek sanctions relief from the Biden administration in the talks that have recently resumed in Vienna.
The Yemen civil war quickly became a proxy fight to regional powers, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launching an air campaign in support of the government after the Iran-backed Houthis made major strikes early in the war.
The Biden administration adjusted the U.S. pro-Saudi approach in February, pulling American military support for the Saudi bombing campaign while also revoking the State Department’s terrorist designation of the Houthis, which aid groups warned could magnify the humanitarian health and hunger crisis in the Middle East’s poorest country.
Mr. Lenderking, a career U.S. diplomat who served as a Mideast-focused deputy assistant secretary of state under Mr. Trump before President Biden tapped him as special envoy for Yemen, suggested Wednesday that all sides are guilty of disrupting aid flows and energy shipments into the war zone.
“The Republic of Yemen bears responsibility to address this issue and Saudi Arabia must not stand in the way of doing so,” he said. “Separately, the Houthis bear responsibility for then ensuring that fuel moves freely throughout the areas under their control.”
But the envoy added that “more work is needed” to get the Houthi forces “to put down their guns and compromise for the sake of peace.”
“Iran’s support to the Houthis is quite significant and it’s lethal,” Mr. Lenderking said. “We have seen thus far no real evidence that Iran wants to support a constructive resolution of the conflict in Yemen.”
“Iran supports the Houthis in a number of ways, through training, through providing lethal support, to helping them fine-tune their [drone] and missile programs. And unfortunately all of this is working to very strong effect as we see more and more attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and potentially other countries, more accuracy and more lethality,” he said. “This is of great concern to us.”