Iran’s tight grip on Houthis in Yemen endangers the country’s peace process

A year after the Stockholm agreement, no progress has been made towards reviving the peace negotiation process

Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels chant slogans with weapons during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Houthi movement in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
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It is not for the lack of mediation and peace building efforts that we are where we are in Yemen. The UN supports Yemen’s Peace Process. The Security Council's five permanent members have played a continuous mediating role to achieve peace. Since 2015, the cities of Geneva, Biel, Kuwait and Stockholm have witnessed four rounds of consultations and one round of negotiations.

Of these efforts, especially important are the negotiations in Kuwait between April and August 2016, and the Stockholm consultations in December 2018.

While the government’s team wants peace in order to regain control over the country based on political references, the Houthis want to achieve peace in order to establish their rule

I took part in the Geneva and Stockholm peace processes as part of Yemeni President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi's team. I was also a member of the advisory group for the official delegation during the previous talks in Kuwait.

My involvement, as well as my observations of the peace process, made me realise there is a problem in understanding the objectives of the conflict parties in engaging in talks. In addition, Iran’s role as the godfather of the Houthis is ignored more often than not.

Mediators need to pay more attention to understanding the objectives of the relevant parties, which is obviously to achieve peace in Yemen.

However, the end goals are different, if not entirely contradictory.

While the government’s team wants peace in order to regain control over the country based on political references, the Houthis want to achieve peace in order to establish their rule, strengthen control over resources and be recognised as the legitimate authority over their claimed territories.

Looking back at the Stockholm peace talks, I can say that despite international interest in ending the war in Yemen, the way the talks were managed served to complicate the tension.

Naturally, each side had different priorities. The Houthis wanted to talk politics, while the government was more interested in the humanitarian aspect.

Unsurprisingly, the Stockholm process ended without a clear action plan. A year after the agreement, there has not been any implementation and no progress has been made towards reviving the peace negotiation process.  

As for Kuwait, I believe that was the golden opportunity for peace that slipped through our fingers. The host country did not spare efforts to support the talks.

The then secretary general envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, tried his best to bring the differing sides closer.

However, once again the varying interests of the two delegations rendered the mediation unsuccessful.

The government’s team insisted on addressing the security issues first, including disarming the Houthis, while the Houthis and their General People's Congress (GPC) allies at the time insisted on political wins and international recognition first.

Nevertheless, Mr Ahmed managed to convince the government to compromise and convinced them to take small steps forward. This meant that the Houthis would implement a small security compromise, which would then be returned by a political compromise by the government, and so on.

Many observers who had hoped that the Kuwait deliberations would put an end to the armed conflict in Yemen were disappointed and shocked by this failure. And yet it should not have come as a surprise.

Peace talks are based on the notion that both parties want the same thing, which is not the case. Without addressing the underlying interests behind the peace, no matter who supervises the mediation and what compromises are made, such processes are bound to fail.

Looking back at all the agreements that were made with the Houthis over many years, the Houthis did not adhere to any of them. They even turned against their allies, such as former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who they eventually killed, as well as wiped out tribe leaders who held peace agreements with them.

The Houthis' political manipulation could be explained by their ideological philosophy based on Iranian Shiite mythology. This political practice gives them the right to hide their true intentions in order to attain their goals.

Evidently, the Houthis ideologically and politically consider themselves as affiliates to Iran. Hundreds of Houthis are trained in the Iranian city of Qom and also in Yemen by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Houthi leaders repeatedly visit Tehran where there is a Houthi ambassador. There are 14 flights per week between Sana’a and Tehran, initiated right after the Houthis took control over the capital Sana’a.

It has been claimed that Iran is interested in replicating the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon through the Houthis in Yemen. It is a tactic to establish a state within the state that will enable the Houthis to have power without accountability.

For peace to succeed and for an agreement with Houthis to work, we need to understand that it has to be approved by Iran first.

One also needs to recognise the underlying interests from peace before taking the warring factions' statements at face value.

Finally, mediating peace in such a complex environment requires patience and consideration of various competing elements. Rushing into shallow agreements in order to make small wins without any real impact on the sustainability of peace is at best counter-intuitive, at worst it is absurd.

Keeping these points in mind while supporting peace talks will contribute to the sustainability and success of the peace process and put an end to the miserable conditions Yemenis are living in.

Rana Ghanem is assistant deputy to the secretary general of the Yemeni Nasserite Party. She was a member of the advisory team of the Yemeni government in the Kuwait talks and  the only woman in the government team in both Geneva and Stockholm talks