The diplomats who struck the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement sold the deal as the beginnings of a new era but instead the Middle East became ever more polarised as Iranian interference went into overdrive.
Nowhere has that been more true than in Yemen, ravaged by hunger and disease as civil war raged after the government was driven out in a coup by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias.
Yet efforts by the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to halt the slide into disaster are finally making a difference and deserve support so the conflict moves into a new phase that sees Yemenis settling their own differences, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, told The National.
More than six months after Yemen’s government and its rivals struck the Stockholm Agreement, Mr Griffiths has a chance to overcome the country’s bitter divisions. According to Dr Gargash, failure now would set back reconciliation efforts by years.
“I still feel that the Stockholm Agreement is basically a frame work we can work with,” he said. “I still feel that Martin Griffiths is keeping the momentum going. The alternatives are very bleak – if this process breaks down it will take us a year or two to just congregate to a new process.”
While it has taken much longer than the weeks-long timeframe targeted in the snow-bound Swedish negotiations, the unilateral drawdown by the Houthi command at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah marks a significant fork in the road for the renegade faction.
“We blame the Houthis, principally, for delaying this process. We think the Houthis agreed to Sweden because they were under military pressure and as such tried to change the focus of the agreement and clearly we have an imperfect situation today,” he said. “We have confidence in the UN process, we have confidence in the UN envoy. We don’t have to see eye to eye with every step that he takes but we think the momentum does need the patience.
“We think there has been an imperfect breakthrough and we are willing to work with him.”
The process is clarifying Iran’s influence over the Houthi, which mixes engagement with Mr Griffiths with destabilising missiles attacks on Saudi Arabia. These barrages play into the greater tensions surrounding US sanctions policy, following the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), said Dr Gargash.
“They are a local player when they decide to pullout unilaterally of Hodeidah but they are also a regional pawn when it comes to keeping up attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, so they are really here doing Iran’s work on one hand but at the same time they are a local party within the Yemeni context.”
Continued progress, however, offers the opportunity to shift focus from military to negotiations both for the Yemenis and the Arab Coalition. “It is essential to understand Sweden offers the best opportunity we have had in several years to end the crisis in Yemen. It does not mean that the crisis as such will end. But it will mean we will shift from a military confrontation to one where the Yemeni parties will have very difficult negotiations but we would rather back these difficult negotiations than also continue on a military tangent.”
If that is not possible and the conflict continues, Yemen will remain another of many examples of how the 2015 nuclear deal failed the promises and goals of its architects. “The JCPOA did not really deliver what was expected of it – an Iran that is more moderate in its approach more of a normal state,” said Dr Gargash. “It is mainly an agreement on Iran’s nuclear activity but also the change in behaviour was very much built into the argument of why the JCPOA was going to be such a seminal agreement.”
Having launched its campaign of maximum pressure to ensure a change in Iranian policy, Donald Trump’s administration is moving forward with its own agenda to reshape the regional dynamics.
An important new track will be laid out later this month when the team around the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner convene a donor conference to fund economic reforms in Palestine. The conference is expected to feature some new aspects of President Trump’s “deal of the century” to address the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Dr Gargash said the UAE would support the conference. Few details exist of attendees and Palestinian political and business leaders have largely declared a boycott. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said President Trump could “go to hell” if he wanted his endorsement.
Attendance at the conference does not pre-empt support or opposition to the final Trump deal, said Dr Gargash. "We are supportive of the conference in Manama, Bahrain because we think that anything that can alleviate the economic conditions of the Palestinians and overall region is worth participating in," Dr Gargash added during the interview with The National in Bratislava, Slovakia, where he was attending the Globsec security conference.
“We don’t think participating in that is a sign of agreement to anything that will transpire later on politically because we don’t know what will transpire.
“We need to wait until we see the Trump proposals and the most important reaction will actually be Palestinian and Israeli reaction. We have to look at and we’ll have to gauge.”
With Israel facing months of domestic turmoil as it prepares for a second general election this year, reaching a consensus on a political way forward is hardly imminent. The UAE continued to hold to the international consensus on a permanent resolution.
“The UAE role is always a supportive one,” Dr Gargash said. “The UAE is not a frontline state here, the UAE is a country that has supported the Palestinian cause, that has supported the Arab consensus on a two-state solution on an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. We’ve been part of the international consensus on how we see this unfolding.”