Tim Lenderking was appointed by President Biden as a special envoy to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Yemen. But on Wednesday, Lenderking told Congress that he had no idea if the US was still providing military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
“I’m not totally in that information loop, congressman, so I can’t really speak to that,” Lenderking said when asked by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) if the US is currently supporting Saudi military operations in Yemen. “I do think that we need to make sure that Saudi Arabia is able to defend itself … but my focus is driving toward a ceasefire, so we can get out of this whole question of offensive and defensive weapons,” Lenderking added.
President Biden vowed to end “offensive” support for the Saudis but left open the possibility of providing assistance if it can be framed as “defensive” in nature. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) also pressed Lenderking about what support the US was providing, and the envoy again denied any knowledge of the situation.
“I know there’s a robust relationship — as there has been over decades — between the US and Saudi Arabia on security matters, but I would have to defer to the DoD [Department of Defense] for the details of the kind of issues that I think you’re raising,” he said.
As most US officials do, Lenderking tried to shift the blame for the conflict on Iran. “Iran’s support to the Houthis is quite significant, and it’s lethal,” he claimed. While it’s true that Iran supports the Houthis politically, how much military support, if any, Tehran provides the group is unknown. Lenderking also referred to Iran as a “terrorist state.”
In comments to Al Jazeera, Iran denied Lenderking’s claim. “Iran has, time and again called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Yemen,” a spokesman for Iran’s UN mission in New York said. “In contrast, the US has been providing the deadliest weapons to those who are using them to kill innocent men, women, and children on a daily basis.”
Since the US pledged support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Washington has provided weapons and intelligence while the coalition regularly bombed civilian infrastructure. On top of the vicious bombing campaign, the coalition has enforced a blockade on Yemen that has done nothing but starve the civilian population.
Lenderking claimed on Wednesday that despite the blockade, the coalition has failed to intercept Iranian shipments to Yemen. “It’s been, frankly, very difficult to intercept ships,” he said. Considering the tight grip the coalition has on the country, Lenderking’s admission is more evidence that the US has no idea how much support the Houthis receive from Iran.
Despite UN warnings that 400,000 Yemeni children under five will starve to death in Yemen, the blockade is still being enforced, although the US State Department has claimed that blocking fuel shipments from entering the port of Hodeidah is “not a blockade.”
Last month, a CNN report showed food trucks were not able to make deliveries to Yemen’s starving population due to the lack of fuel.
Democrats in Congress have been pushing the Biden administration to pressure the Saudis into lifting the blockade. Lenderking said he was working with Riyadh to ease restrictions on fuel imports but did not appear to be putting any pressure on the Saudis to do so, offering no consequences if the blockade continues. “I cannot articulate what those consequences would be,” he said.
Lenderking also said that the Houthis offensive in the Maarib province was the number one obstacle to a ceasefire. But the Saudis have made no serious offers to the Houthis. In March, Riyadh put forward a new ceasefire proposal, but the offer would not fully lift the blockade, which is a key Houthi demand.