MUKALLA, Yemen (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Yemen on Thursday accused Iran of "throwing gasoline on the fire" of conflicts across the Middle East, vowing that America will defend its regional interests and not "shy away when the problems get difficult."
Ambassador Matthew Tueller's comments during an interview with The Associated Press signal that America's hard-line approach to Tehran in the wake of withdrawing from the nuclear deal will continue.
His remarks also take on even more importance as Tueller is now President Donald Trump's nominee to be the next ambassador in Iraq, a country where Iranian-led militias just beat back the Islamic State group and Tehran holds political sway.
"Wherever we see instability here in the region — and I'm not saying that Iran is the source of all of the instability — but we see that opportunistically, they're going in," Tueller told the AP at a military ceremony in eastern Yemen. "They're throwing gasoline on the fire in an area of the world that's so important to all of us."
Tueller became America's ambassador to Yemen in 2014 just as the Arab world's poorest country spiraled into chaos. Rebels known as Houthis stormed into the capital, Sanaa, and later seized power from the country's internationally recognized government.
The Houthis, members of a Shiite sect, pushed government forces almost entirely out of the country before a Saudi-led coalition launched a war to back them in March 2015.
The war has devastated Yemen, pushing the arid nation to the brink of famine and spreading disease like cholera. The war has killed over 10,000 people, displaced 3 million and left much of the infrastructure in ruins.
United Nations experts, Western nations and analysts say Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons ranging from assault rifles up to the ballistic missiles the rebels now can fire as deeply into Saudi Arabia as its capital, Riyadh. Iran denies arming the rebels.
"We see Iran as one of the major forces that is trying to foster instability," Tueller said. "Step back for a moment and look at what we have in Yemen. We have a non-state actor, a militia, that has overthrown the government, and yet it is receiving arms, equipment and a support from a state, Iran."
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations, dismissed Tueller's comments and blamed America and its allies for "the potential starvation of 20 million Yemenis."
"The region, that we Iranians actually live in, is burning mainly because of the unending illegal invasions, aggression and regime-change efforts of America and its allies," he said.
After the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, the U.S. Embassy closed, sending Tueller and other diplomats to work out of neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The diplomat from Provo, Utah, returned Thursday on a U.S. military cargo plane to an Emirati military base near Mukalla. There, Tueller met Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber, who wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment on Iran.
"Iran creates chaos in the region, it creates chaos everywhere, in Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and in Yemen," al-Jaber said. "Iran has no place in the Arabian Peninsula, it only creates chaos and terrorism everywhere. I don't think those who are capable of such acts are capable of peace."
However, patience with Saudi Arabia, long a U.S. ally, has grown thin over the Oct. 2 killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul. Those allegedly involved include members of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's entourage.
The U.S. Senate voted this week to move forward a measure to withdraw American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Tueller stressed the need to end Yemen's war in a way that "restores government control of institutions."
"The solution lies in the parties coming together and finding a way to peacefully share power," he said.
However, such talks have yet to offer anything tangible. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition and their allies continue their push on the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, which aid groups warn could disrupt the Yemen's main gateway for food imports, pushing the country to starvation.
President Barrack Obama appointed Tueller as ambassador to Yemen. However, Tueller offered an explanation of America's interests in the Mideast that sounded right on target with Trump's while speaking with the AP.
"It's an area of the world so important to all of us because of the critical oil and gas resources that are here, because of the potential for conflict here and we do not want to see conflict here," he said. "And yet Iran, obviously, wherever we see them acting, they're acting not in a way to promote stability, but actually to exploit instability."