The United Nations Security Council approved on April 14th a resolution regarding the situation in Yemen. The resolution, which was adopted by a vote of 14 in favor, with only Russia abstaining, strongly condemned the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and demanded that all Yemeni parties resume UN-brokered negotiations on a transition to democracy.
The resolution, reaffirmed the Security Council's support for the "legitimacy" of Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemini's president-in-exile who is currently in Saudi Arabia. It demanded that the Houthis withdraw from areas they have taken by force, relinquish all arms and cease their efforts to usurp the powers of the “legitimate” government. Acting under its authority pursuant to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council expanded sanctions and travel bans on Houthi leaders and their Yemen backers including the son of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh has been lending support to the Houthis' insurgency and was himself blacklisted by the Security Council last November. In its resolution, the Council also approved an arms embargo on the “direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of arms to the Houthi fighters and their backers.
The Houthi leaders promptly rejected the Security Council resolution, claiming it supported “aggression.”
After the vote, the UN ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Yemen addressed reporters outside the Security Council chamber. Yemen's ambassador, Khaled Hussein Mohamed Alyemany, declared that the "Houthis cannot take this state by force" and rejected any "influence of Iran in our domestic affairs." The “kidnapped state” must be returned to its legitimate government, he added.
The Saudi ambassador, Abdallah Yahya A. Al-Mouallimi, characterized the Security Council resolution as an "endorsement of the objectives, scope and methods" of the “operation” undertaken in support of the Yemini government by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The operation currently includes airstrikes led by Saudi Arabia. Iran’s meddling in other countries is not accepted, he added in explaining his view of the message the Security Council was sending to Iran. When asked whether Saudi Arabia was contemplating a ground invasion if the Houthis defy the Security Council resolution, the ambassador demurred.
The resolution does not explicitly support the Saudi-led military operation, nor does it expressly denounce Iran's support of the Houthis in their attempt to force Hadi out of the presidency and his government to dissolve. However, the resolution tilts clearly in the direction of the pro-Saudi led Gulf coalition's position in opposing the Houthis' coup attempt. The Security Council noted "its support for the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council in assisting the political transition in Yemen" while continuing in the interim to provide political cover to Hadi's continued claims to the presidency of Yemen. The resolution’s arms embargo against transfer of arms to Houthi fighters and their backers is clearly principally aimed at Iran, even if does not call out Iran by name. Arms transfers to the “legitimate” government of Yemen are not subject to the arms embargo.
Russia's explanation for abstaining was that the resolution in its opinion was not sufficiently balanced. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that the resolution text had failed to take into account proposals his country had made to call on all sides to cease their fire. He also indicated displeasure with what Russia considered to be inappropriate references to sanctions.
In point of fact, Russia did not want to offend Iran by supporting the resolution. That is because Russia is aggressively seeking to expand trade with the Iranian regime, as evidenced by its decision to lift its self-imposed suspension of the delivery of S-300 air defense missiles. At the same time, Russia did not want to needlessly offend the Gulf States by going so far as to veto the resolution that they have championed. Saudi Arabia in particular represents a lucrative market for Russian weapons. After its own softer alternative resolution gained no traction, Russia decided to follow the path of least resistance and abstain.
In the midst of the diplomatic jockeying going on at the Security Council, a humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been worsening by the day. According to Ivan Simonovic, the UN's Deputy Secretary General for human rights, both sides in the conflict are to blame for "unselective targeting" that has resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives. More than half of those killed were civilians. Hospitals, schools, airports and mosques have been destroyed in airstrikes, through shelling and other attacks. “Every hour we are receiving and documenting deeply disturbing and distressing reports of the toll that this conflict is taking on civilian lives and infrastructure,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
The Obama administration is supporting the Saudi-led military operation. It called on Iran to respect the Security Council resolution. “I think what would be most helpful from the Iranian side at this point is to respect this newly imposed UN arms embargo that was just passed today and stop supporting the Houthis," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. The United States was aware that Iran has been "incredibly destabilising in places in the region."
The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior American defense official, who was more specific regarding Iran’s push to arm the Houthis, possibly with game-changing surface-to-air missiles. “We are looking. We know they are trying to do it," the defense official said.
Iran remains defiant. “No international, Islamic or humanitarian principle approves of the [Saudi] aggression against Yemen, since they (the aggressors) are killing the oppressed and defenseless people,” Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, told reporters on the day that the Security Council resolution was passed, Press TV reported. He warned that Saudi Arabia will suffer the consequences of its “aggression.” This echoes the declaration on April 12th by Commander of the Iranian Army’s Ground Forces, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan: “I advise the Saudi military to stop this [aggression] as it will suffer a heavy defeat.”
The U.S. is inspecting Yemen-bound ships to ferret out and dispose of arms that would violate the Security Council’s arms embargo. Whether this will potentially lead to an armed conflict at sea between U.S. and Iranian warships remains to be seen. Either way, the Obama administration appears ready to continue compartmentalizing its nuclear negotiations with Iran from any other misdeeds by the Iranian regime, including the flouting of arms embargoes already imposed on the regime itself because of its enrichment activities in violation of past UN Security Council resolutions that are still in force. If, as expected, Iran defies the Yemen arms embargo as well, it will have demonstrated its utter contempt for any international constraints, which should give Congress, if not the Obama administration itself, even more pause in expecting Iran to ever allow unfettered international inspections of its nuclear-related activities.
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