The Japan Forum on International Relations

November 26,2019

Yemen Situation Will Be the Key to the US-Iran Relations Breakthrough

The summit meeting of Prime Minister Abe and President Rouhani was held on September 24. I believe this meeting will be a touchstone for Japanese diplomacy for overcoming its strife with Korea, whether Japan is genuinely seeking its contribution to the world peace, or only interested in a narrow minded disputes. Meanwhile, would this meeting help improve the US-Iran relations —actually, that is the question. It is hard to imagine if Japan asks “Dear Iran, would you listen to the US?” and Iran would listen. Even if they are suffering from the economic sanction, it is not a big problem for the leadership. So proposing to lift the sanction will hardly be a leverage for the negotiation.

Then, what is Iran’s critical interest? That would be the situation in Yemen. Currently, US-backed, Saudi-led united forces have been intervening in Yemen to combat anti-government Houthis, while Iran-backed Houthis is attacking Saudi Arabia. In Japan, Yemeni Houthis is only mentioned whether they were the main actor of attacking the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, but it is too narrow-sighted. US State Secretary Mr. Pompeo blamed Iran, but Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Zarif counterargued by showing the images of devastation in Yemen —pointing out it is nothing but a farce that US is blaming Iran of Saudi attack by Houthis while it is blind-sighting itself of situation in Yemen.

In fact, Democrats-led US Congress has passed the resolution to Trump administration not to provide arms to Saudi Arabia, due to the concern on Yemeni situation. Iran’s argument is convincing since Trump administration vetoed the resolution and continuing its support to Saudi Arabia. Iran, of course, is not assisting Yemen only because of the humanitarian reason. Houthis, having grown undefeatable in Yemen, has already proposed a de facto truce to Saudi Arabia. “Recognition of Houthis will help the security of the Gulf region including of Saudi Arabia, pressuring Iran will not help anything” —such message is a strong implication for the related countries. Recognition of Houthis in the international community will be a big leverage against Iran.

Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, headed by H.R.H. Prince Mohammad bin Salman, as a matter of fact, will not end instantly. It is hard to imagine, however, that Crown Prince believes they can defeat Houthis completely. Japan is likely not able to convince Prince Salman, but it does not mean Japan cannot do anything for Iranian issues. The Japanese government better be aware of its advantageous position as neutral in the current Yemen situation. For PM Abe to make a breakthrough, only way is to organize an international conference on peace in Yemen, so US and Iran can cooperate. It is hard to imagine the US, that supports Saudi Arabia, negotiates with Iran and achieve an agreement, despite the situation in Yemen, to begin with. If Japan can be a mediator for the improvement of the US-Iran relations, Japan’s seriousness on its contribution to the world peace will be recognized.

(This is the English translation of an article written by SHINODA Hideaki, Professor, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Graduate School, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on October 3, 2019.)