A senior US military commander sounded the alarm on Iran’s role in Yemen on Tuesday, telling Congress that Tehran has accelerated the pace in arming and supporting the Houthis, and has achieved in five years in the war-ravaged country what took it two decades in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General Joseph Votel said on Tuesday that Iran had “enhanced” its support and funding for proxy forces in the Middle East following the nuclear agreement signed in July 2015.
“Iran has extended its tentacles across the region through numerous proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah operating in multiple countries, hardline Iranian-backed Shia militia groups (SMGs) in Iraq and Syria, and Iranian support has enabled the Houthis [in Yemen],” Mr Votel told the House Armed Services Committee. The result, he said, “is prolonging the civil war in Yemen, threatening Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and risking expansion of Yemen’s civil war into a regional conflict”.
The general accused Tehran of continuing to develop advanced ballistic missile capabilities and transferring them to the Houthis. This threat, he said, “will enable them to strike US partners and allies” in the Gulf region.
“We go to China Lake to test our weapons systems. [Iran] go to test their weapons systems in Yemen,” Mr Votel said. Across the Middle East, Iran was “the major threat to US interests and partnerships”, and is “working through proxies and friendly political allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to establish an arc of influence”, which Mr Votel called the "Shia Crescent".
Separately, at the United Nations in New York, the Security Council held closed consultations about the conflict in Yemen, coinciding with UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed concluding his mission and passing the torch to Martin Griffiths.
In his departing remarks Mr Ahmed blamed the “destructive pattern of zero-sum politics which has led [Yemen] to plunge into more poverty and destruction”.
After three years in the job, Mr Ahmed revealed that the Yemeni parties squandered an opportunity for a political settlement in Kuwait in 2016. “I would like to announce, for the first time, that we were about to reach agreement on a peace proposal, developed in consultation with the parties, but they refused to sign in the last minute” he said.
“In the end of the consultations, it became clear that the Houthis were not prepared to make concessions on the proposed security arrangements,” he said.
Mr Ahmed spoke of renewed and large-scale escalation of military confrontations in Al Hodeidah, Al Jawf, Sanaa and Al Baida as well as areas along the Yemeni-Saudi border. "The Houthis continue to fire ballistic missiles into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," he said.
He reiterated his concern about "reports from several humanitarian organisations on the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers." Mr Ahmed said "the systematic recruitment of children by the Houthis may have negative implications on the future of the country".
In his parting remarks, Mr Ahmed stressed twice that "only the Yemeni decision makers are able to stop the war and the bloodshed" and that more than 22 million Yemenis are in need of some assistance.