Iran has an opportunity to help resolve the conflict in Yemen, said U.S. special envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking on Tuesday while calling for the Islamic Republic to “put its best foot forward” amid the Biden administration’s renewed push for diplomacy.
Iran is the primary backer of the militant-separatist Houthis who control the north of Yemen and are engaged in a more than six-year civil war against the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government in the south.
President Biden has elevated U.S. engagement to resolve what the United Nations has described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and a “living hell” for children, with more than 24 million people requiring humanitarian assistance. The president this month announced an end for U.S. support of the Saudi-led offensive operations in the country, criticized as contributing to civilian casualties and worsening the humanitarian crisis.
He also revoked the Trump administration’s last-minute terrorist designation for the Houthis, which the U.N. warned would contribute to a mass famine in the country.
Lenderking, who was appointed by Biden as special envoy, put U.S. support behind the U.N.-led peace process for resolving the conflict in Yemen.
He said that in conversations in the region and inside Yemen “there is a profound desire” to end the conflict and called on key stakeholders such as Iran to work toward that end.
“This is an opportunity for Iran to rally behind this effort and support a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Yemen,” he added.
That would include ending support for lethal Houthi activity, he added, such as providing missiles and sophisticated drones to carry out attacks and mining the international waterways around Yemen and Oman.
“These are things that are really antithetical to the peace effort in Yemen,” he said.
He criticized Iran as having “played a very negative role in Yemen” by financing, training and supplying the Houthis in their attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf but called on Tehran to “put its best foot forward in terms supporting the kind of international response that we’re trying to engineer to end this conflict.”
Lenderking said he would “leave it for others to discuss” whether the U.S. would speak with Iran about resolving the conflict in Yemen but added that he did speak with U.N. envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths about his most recent visit in Tehran.
“I was able to speak to him about his meetings there,” Lenderking said.
His comments come as the Houthis have stepped up efforts to take the city of Marib, home to about 1 million internally displaced Yemenis and considered the government’s last stronghold in the north of the country.
The United Nations has warned that an assault on the city could further displace hundreds of thousands of civilians and worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in the country.
The Houthis have also launched a series of attacks across the border with Saudi Arabia, which Riyadh has said targeted civilian infrastructure, including the Abha International Airport, another attack setting aflame a civilian plane near the airport and attacks on civilian targets in the nearby city of Khamis Mushait.
Lenderking condemned these actions and called for them to stop, saying they “are not the actions of a group that claims it wants peace.”
While Biden ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen, Lenderking said “many of the details are still being discussed about how that all shakes out” and reaffirmed U.S. commitment for Riyadh to defend itself in the face of Houthi attacks.
The president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken “both made clear we’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice,” Lenderking said.