The international community is elated at the April 2 announcement of a U.N.-brokered two-month long ceasefire in Yemen between the Saudi Arabia- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition, which backs the officially recognized Yemeni government, and the Iranian-supported Houthi movement. A statement from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is emblematic of this attitude, saying, “Today must be the start of a better future for the people of Yemen,” and that he intended to “support the successful implementation of the truce.” Metered, but passionately optimistic.
This optimism is unearned. The ceasefire likely gives Iran an achievement. What gives theocrats in Tehran an advantage is unlikely to lead to a meaningful peace.
Clearly, the Iranian Foreign Ministry views this as a gain. Saeed Khatibzadeh, the ministry’s spokesperson, lauded the ceasefire and “expressed hope that the move could be a prelude to a complete lifting of a blockade and a permanent establishment of a ceasefire in order to find a political solution to the Yemen crisis,” according to various news reports.
The hope that Iran is sincere in pursuing peace is understandable. The humanitarian costs in Yemen are catastrophic. The conflict had killed 377,000 people by the end of 2021, according to U,N. estimates, and nearly half the country lacks sufficient food, according to the United Nations World Food Program. Moreover, the current situation is a security nightmare. Yemen is a hotbed for terrorist groups. According to the 2020 State Department Country Reports on Terrorism for Yemen, “AQAP, ISIS-Yemen, and Iran-backed terrorist groups such as Hizballah and the IRGC-QF continued to exploit the political and security vacuum created by the ongoing conflict.” This situation has not improved.
The war in Yemen is incredibly complex, includes multiple inside and outside actors, and has a long history. Indeed, even stating when the current war started is difficult. It is often grouped in with the various uprisings that occurred during the Arab Spring in 2011, and that is when the fighting indeed intensified. But conflict with what is now known as the Houthi movement, mostly made up of Zaydi Muslims, a Shiite sect, first occurred in 2004. Moreover, Yemen wasn’t even a unified country until 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was then that the formerly communist South Yemen and the more traditional North Yemen were unified by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and that was followed by a period of civil war. To complicate matters further, a Zaydi dynasty ruled portions of Yemen for centuries prior to being deposed in 1962.
But hope alone does not make for good policy. While the Iranian regime and the Houthis don’t always see eye-to-eye, and Iran may, at times, struggle to control them, it is well-established that the Houthis are a regime proxy. Indeed, the Houthi slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews,” a variation of the slogan used by the Iranian mullahs in the 1979 revolution. As former State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters years ago, “There is a well-documented history of (Iranian) support for the Houthi(s).” This support has not abated.