By establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Houthis, Iran complicates Riyadh’s attempts to reach a deal with the Yemeni rebel group.
While violent protests consume sanctions-hit Iran, Tehran is not showing any sign of loosening its influence over the Middle East. The country’s most recent gambit saw it transfer responsibility for Yemen’s embassy in Tehran to Houthi rebels, who have been fighting Saudi-backed forces for the last four years.
Tehran’s move comes as the Saudis and Houthis reportedly made advances in secret talks to end the conflict. The pair apparently appeared to reach an agreement on a plan to end the war in Jordan’s Amman on September 20.
The talks were purportedly held right after the Houthis claimed to hit the kingdom’s biggest oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia, disrupting half of its oil production for several days. While Washington believed that the real force behind the attacks was Tehran, the US did not offer any help to Riyadh, seemingly forcing the kingdom to reach a deal with the Houthis.
With the embassy move, Tehran appears to be disrupting progress in the Saudi-Houthi talks, bringing the Iran-backed militia on to its side.
The Arab League has condemned Iran’s move on Thursday, describing Tehran’s Yemen involvement as a “hostile policy aimed at destabilizing Yemen, which will in turn threaten the security of its neighbors.”
"Iran's official recognition of the Houthi militia is an aggressive behavior and violation of the sovereignty of Yemen," said Mishaal bin Fahm Al-Salami, the spokesman of the Arab Parliament, which is the legislative body of the Cairo-based Arab League.
But the Iranians showed no sign of reversing course, as President Hassan Rouhani accepted the credentials of Houthi, Ibrahim Mohammed al-Dailami, as Yemeni ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday. Dailami was appointed as envoy to Tehran by the Houthis in August.
According to media reports, the Houthis and Saudis have been regularly contacting each other since September, discussing ways to reopen Yemen’s main airport in the capital Sanaa, which was captured by the rebels at the beginning of the civil war in 2014. They were also apparently discussing ways to create security zones between Houthi-claimed territories and the Saudi border.
Riyadh is said to have asked the Houthis to release themselves from Iran’s grip, a demand, which appeared to be a source of concern for Tehran.
Khalid bin Salman, the brother of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is deputy defense minister of the kingdom also involved the talks, hinting at the seriousness of the negotiations.
In early November, Khalid bin Salman was also an instrumental player in reaching a power-sharing agreement between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the UAE-supported separatist Southern Transition Council (STC), whose clashes had escalated before the deal, putting the two Gulf allies on opposing sides in the Yemen conflict.
Back in 2016-17, a similar scenario was also in play as the Houthis were in talks with their Saudi counterparts to reach an agreement.
In 2016, Riyadh’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, led Saudi efforts to develop a political understanding with Mohammed Abdul Salam, the top negotiator of the Houthis, in Kuwait.
Both sides’ lengthy discussions paved the way for an agreement to end fighting by forming the De-escalation and Coordination Committee in Dhahran al-Janoub, a southern Saudi Arabian town. According to the deal, both sides would jointly oversee the compliance process of ending clashes.
But the agreement quickly collapsed as some Houthis attacked the headquarters of the De-escalation and Coordination Committee in January 2017.
Until now, Saudi involvement in the Yemen conflict has produced a PR disaster for the kingdom, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as 24 million people, or 80 percent of the country's population, live requiring “assistance and protection” according to the UN.