A top State Department official on Tuesday said the United States is “deeply concerned” about Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“Iran provides financial support, weapons, training and intelligence to Houthis,” Gerald Feierstein, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs, said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
In the weeks and months since the Houthis took over Sanaa and forced the pro-West government to flee, “We have seen a significant expansion of Iranian involvement in Yemen’s domestic affairs,” Feierstein said.
“We believe that Iran sees opportunities with the Houthis to expand its influence in Yemen and threaten Saudi and Gulf Arab interests,” he said.
The rising tensions over Yemen come at a time when the Obama administration is trying to forge a deal with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
Feierstein said he saw no relationship between the nuclear talks and Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels but acknowledged Iran has a “sense that it has the upper hand because of its engagement elsewhere in the region.”
“Because of the weakness or the disarray within the Sunni community, the Iranians may be emboldened. I think our sense is that the Iranian nuclear negotiations would not be a factor,” he said.
Feierstein did not say whether the U.S. was talking with Iran about its involvement in Yemen but said “we believe that the Iranians are well aware of our views and our positions on the situation in Yemen.” He said the U.S. has reached out to the Houthis, but, so far, they have declined to engage directly.
Iran proposed a peace plan for Yemen earlier this week, but Feierstein said, “If the Iranians are serious about the peace plan, in the first instance they should stop sending weapons to the Houthis."
“And they should also give their advice to the Houthis that they should be returning to the peace talks and the negotiating table,” he said.
Feierstein said the U.S. would be “looking at ways” to ensure a long-standing United Nations Security Council arms embargo on Iran is enforced, and will track an Iranian ship near Yemen.
“We will be keeping a careful eye on it. We also have significant forces in the area, and we'll be tracking,” he said.
The administration official said the destabilizing actions of the Houthis and their allies have created “new openings” for al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which U.S. officials say is the most dangerous of the terror group's offshoots.
The displacement of the former Yemeni government has also disrupted U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
In recent weeks, the U.S. has stepped up military support to the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, providing intelligence and logistics support, refueling aircraft, expediting arms shipments, as well as increasing illicit arms interdiction efforts off the coast. The coalition is now conducting a third week of airstrikes in the country.
Feierstein said only through a “negotiated resolution” of the conflict can the U.S. resume cooperation with Yemen to “deter, defeat and ultimately to eliminate the AQAP threat.”