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The Takeaway: Biden’s Yemen envoy wants more than ‘nice words’ from Iran

  • September 22, 2022

NEW YORK — 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.”

From our regional contributors

1. Iranian oil province suffers from pollution, water scarcity

Water scarcity and poor air quality have made life unbearable for residents of Khuzestan, the Iranian province that produces three-quarters of the country’s oil. Kourosh Ziabari reports on the worsening standards of living in Khuzestan, where the government hasn’t made investments in the province’s outdated infrastructure. Many analysts blame Tehran’s neglect on Khuzestan’s demographic makeup, which is nearly 40% Arab.

2. How the ancient Egyptians helped build the Giza pyramids

Scientists have reconstructed 8,000 years of the Nile River’s history in Egypt’s Giza floodplain to better understand how it was used to erect the iconic pyramids. Marc Espanol reports that the scientists were able to show how a now-vanished branch of the Nile river was key to the pyramids’ construction.

3. Lapid sticks to high ground en route to Israeli elections

In the three months since he became Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid has been slowly but surely climbing in the polls. Ben Caspit writes that “his campaign consists simply of working very hard, day and night, at his post. He avoids getting dragged into mudslinging and exudes an aura of dignity and responsibility.” But Lapid’s campaign isn’t without its headaches, the most recent of which was the last-minute split of the Joint List.

4. Egypt eyes bid to host 2036 Olympic Games

Egypt hopes to become the first African host of the Olympic Games, reports Mohamed Sabry. On Sept. 24, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach will discuss Egypt’s planned bid during his meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. While in the North African country, Bach is also expected to tour Egypt’s Olympic City, a $45 billion project that has been under construction since 2015. Egypt’s Olympic aspirations come as the country gears up to host the UN’s annual climate conference in November.

5. Thousands gather in Istanbul for anti-LGBTQ rally

Thousands gathered in the conservative heart of Istanbul on Sunday to urge the Turkish government to penalize homosexuality and ban activities that support the LGBTQ movement. The “Big Family Gathering” was attended by about 150 conservative groups from across Turkey, and as Nazlan Ertan reports, “demonstrates the rising profile and vocality of the anti-LGBTQ lobby.”

Multimedia this week

Ben Caspit spoke this week with Knesset member for the Likud party Nir Barkat, who recently returned from campaigning in the United States against the Iranian nuclear program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants fellow strongman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to remain in power, Russia expert Mark Galeotti tells Amberin Zaman.

Ben Caspit interviews Attila Somfalvi, chief anchor at the Israel’s Ynet news site and TV channel, about Israel’s fifth round of elections in less than four years.

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