UN Yemen envoy makes first visit to Iran in push for peace

Martin Griffiths meets with Iran’s top diplomat to negotiate an end to humanitarian crisis, days after Biden pulls support for Saudi-led coalition

In this July 1, 2019 photo, United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia. (AP/Pavel Golovkin)
In this July 1, 2019 photo, United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths speaks during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Russia. (AP/Pavel Golovkin)

The United Nations special envoy for Yemen arrived on his first visit to Iran Sunday for talks on the grinding war in the Arab world’s poorest country, Iranian state TV reported.

Martin Griffiths was set to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other officials during his two-day visit, his office said. The sessions are part of a broader effort to negotiate a political solution to the nearly six-year conflict pitting Iran-allied Houthi rebels against Yemeni government forces supported by a Saudi-led military coalition.

The trip comes just days after US President Joe Biden announced that the US will end its support, including some arms sales, of the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Houthis. The long-awaited move refocused a spotlight on the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and was welcomed by many Yemenis and aid groups that hope the policy change might add to momentum for peace talks.

Biden’s administration is moving to revoke the designation of Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist group, citing the need to mitigate one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

In this September 21, 2019 file photo, Shiite Houthi tribesmen hold their weapons as they chant slogans during a tribal gathering showing support for the Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Former US president Donald Trump’s administration had branded the Iranian-backed Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in January, a move that limited the provision of aid to the beleaguered Yemeni people, who have suffered under the years-long civil war and famine.

Griffiths’ “immediate priority” in Tehran is to push a nationwide ceasefire, urgent humanitarian measures and the resumption of the political process, his office added. Those goals repeatedly have proved elusive over years of ruinous war that have left the country deeply divided. The visit was planned long before Biden’s announcement, Griffiths’ spokeswoman Ismini Palla said.

The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north in 2014. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and other countries, launched a bombing campaign to expel the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government months later.

Iran, seeing an opportunity to aid a war of attrition against rival Saudi Arabia, has provided the Houthis with military and political support, according to Arab countries, the West and United Nations experts. Tehran has long denied the allegations, despite evidence to the contrary.

The war has killed some 130,000 people, including over 13,000 civilians slain in targeted attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project, and pushed millions to the brink of famine.

A malnourished girl Rahmah Watheeq receives treatment at a feeding center at Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Nov. 3, 2020 (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Last month, the Israeli military deployed Iron Dome air defense batteries around the southern city of Eilat amid concerns of an attack from the Houthis.

Iran has indicated plans to exact revenge for the United States killing of Qassem Soleimani, the influential head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force, and for the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s military nuclear program, allegedly at Israel’s hands.

The Israeli military assessed that such retaliation was likely to come from an Iranian proxy, potentially the Houthis.

An Iron Dome battery deployed near Eilat (Flash90)

Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told a Saudi news outlet in December that Israel had information indicating Iran was developing unmanned aerial vehicles and “smart missiles” in Iraq and Yemen, and that the weapons could have the ability to strike Israel.

Israel’s Iron Dome is generally used against rockets and mortar shells, but can also intercept small drones and cruise missiles. Its Patriot system is used primarily to defend against ballistic missiles and larger aircraft like fighter jets and unmanned aerial vehicles.

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