Iranian Forces in Yemen Demand Arms Smuggling Routes Be Opened

Yemen-Houthi peace talks stumble amid Houthi calls for attacks on Israel

Swedish Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom and UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths

Swedish Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom and UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths / Getty Images

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Iranian-backed forces in Yemen are demanding the reopening of the country's international airport, a stumbling block in tense negotiations taking place this week between warring factions in Sweden, according to U.S. officials and Western sources on the ground who told the Washington Free Beacon this demand by Iran's Houthi rebels would allow Tehran to continue importing weapons and militants in an area of the Middle East that leaves Israel vulnerable to attack.

As the peace talks drag on with no sustainable end in sight, Iran's Houthi allies are demanding the Sana'a international airport be reopened, but they are taking issue with proposals that would mandate all planes in and out of the airport be screened by Yemen's Saudi-backed government.

Houthi leaders have rejected this compromise, sources confirmed to the Free Beacon, instead seeking to limit the possibility of inspections in order to keep military channels with Iran intact. This latest impasse is being viewed as a sign of the deep divisions that remain between Houthi rebels and Yemen.

The international community has hailed the peace talks as a success—as it is the first time in more than two years the legitimate Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have met face-to-face—but after five days of talks, the sides have yet to reach agreement on any of the key confidence building measures on the docket, or on a framework for an eventual peace agreement. The talks are expected to continue through the end of the week.

A weekend statement from the Tehran-backed rebel leaders urged all sides to quit focusing on peace talks and coordinate on methods to attack Israel.

The Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee urged all sides to not "prioritize the war against Yemen, but rather commit to their official declaration of priority and the nation's first cause, Palestine," leaders said in a statement.

"Through a vision that reflects a well-established and stable reality in which our brothers in Palestine have some relief," it continued. "This should not be through an invitation to negotiate with an arrogant entity that is rejecting the Arab initiatives and is proceeding with its daily crimes, but to work on lifting the siege, aiding Palestinians, and supporting their development."

The statement's focus on Israel is being viewed as a sign by Western observers that the Houthi rebels continue to defer to their Iranian-supporters, a viewpoint only further solidified by the demand that Sana'a international airport be reopened without an inspections regime aimed at thwarting Iranian arms smuggling.

The Houthi official motto remains: "God is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. A Curse Upon the Jews. Victory to Islam."

The opening of the airport is one of three top line confidence building measures being discussed in Sweden. Also on the table is a prisoner swap and a package of economic issues tied to Yemen's central bank.

The Yemeni government, backed by the Saudi coalition, has expressed a willingness to re-open the Sana'a airport, but with the stipulation that flights are stopped for inspection in Aden or Sayun, locations under control of the Yemeni government. This would choke off Iran's ability to continue sending ballistic missiles, landmines, military trainers, and other on-the-ground assets supporting the Houthi fight.

As the peace talks continue this week, they are generating partisan divisions on Capitol Hill, where a growing coalition of lawmakers is seeking to buck the Trump administration and end U.S. assistance to the Saudi coalition as recompense for the Kingdom's involvement in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Western sources in Sweden and familiar with the state-of-play on the talks say the Houthis are seeking to double down on their ties to Tehran, which has sent scores of weapons and fighters into the country in support of the Houthi rebels.

The Houthis are said to have floated Amman, Jordan, as a potential security stop leading into and out of Sana'a. However, this also has emerged as a sticking point, as any flight traveling to Amman would be forced to fly over Saudi airspace. In this scenario, the Houthis would be daring the Saudi side to launch a strike on any commercial aircraft it believes might be smuggling weapons to the Houthis.

A pathway to Amman is also likely to upset the Israelis, who would not be able to as easily track these Iranian smuggling operations if they were rerouted to Amman.

Sources say the Houthi side is essentially aiming to turn the Sana'a airport into a hub like Beirut, which is under the thumb of Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but is still treated as an internationally endorsed transport hub. Any endorsement of this policy is likely to solidify Iran's illicit smuggling routes and keep the military lines to Houthi rebels operating without interruption.

Adam Kredo   Email Adam | Full Bio | RSS
Adam Kredo is senior writer reporting on national security and foreign policy matters for the Washington Free Beacon. An award-winning political reporter who has broken news from across the globe, Kredo’s work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary Magazine, the Drudge Report, and the Jerusalem Post, among many others. His Twitter handle is @Kredo0. His email address is kredo@freebeacon.com.

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