Al-Monitor spoke to Timothy Lenderking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly about Iran’s role in Yemen.
Buried in Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s speech before the UN General Assembly Wednesday was a call for “constructive talks” between Yemeni groups.
Raisi’s speech, which slammed the United States and downplayed hopes for a revived nuclear agreement, occurred against a backdrop of protests across Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini in custody after being arrested for a hijab violation.
Therefore, few may be paying attention to the Iranian president’s passing reference to Yemen.
Speaking with Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the United Nations summit, US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking said he remains skeptical of “Iranian behavior and actions, not matching rhetoric.”
Instead, “what I’m very focused on is ensuring that Iran’s behavior toward Yemen moves in a constructive direction,” Lenderking said.
Since early April, a UN-mediated truce has brought relative calm to Yemen after more than seven years of heavy fighting between the Iran-aligned Houthi movement and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. The truce, which is set to expire on Oct. 2, earned a brief mention in President Joe Biden’s UN General Assembly address on Wednesday.
“We’ll continue to back the UN-mediated truce in Yemen, which has delivered precious months of peace to people that have suffered years of war,” Biden said.
Biden has made ending the war in Yemen, once dubbed the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, a top priority. He appointed Lenderking as envoy in February 2021.
In terms of words, Iran seems to have turned a page in recent months, backing the UN- (and US-) brokered cease-fire. “The Islamic Republic supports the cease-fire that will lead to complete peace,” Raisi told Mahdi al-Mashat, the chairman of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council, during a phone call in June.
Lenderking noted the more positive statements from Iran, but called on Wednesday for Iran’s words to match its actions: “We would like to see their nice words met with actual implementation,” he said earlier Wednesday at a press briefing.
The special envoy noted that Iran continues to send weapons and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters into the impoverished country to help the Houthis in their war effort.
“The presence of IRGC personnel is something that we feel is very inconsistent with Iran’s stated goal of supporting a political resolution of the conflict,” Lenderking said. “Working to demilitarize their presence would be something that is extremely positive.”
Tehran says it provides political support to the Houthis, but denies sending them weapons.
Joining Raisi in the Iranian delegation to New York this week are Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Iran’s deputy foreign minister-turned-top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani.
The Iranians don’t deal directly with the Americans on Yemen, and won’t be meeting with Lenderking this week. But as with the nuclear talks, the United States has its intermediaries with whom it can pass messages.
“We do encourage regional countries and stakeholders in Yemen to talk to the Iranians,” Lenderking said. “We think there’s the potential for benefit from that dialogue.”
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