Iran and the Houthis of Yemen
Shiite revivalism and its challenge to Middle East order.
Arab News has reported on November 23, 2016 that Yemen’s Houthi rebels and supporters of the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh are responsible for the killing of 9,646 civilians. 8,146 of them men, 597 women, and 903 children, from January 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016 in 16 Yemeni provinces. According to Shami Al-Daheri, a military analyst and strategic expert, the Houthis are being led by Iran and follow Tehran’s orders. “They are moving in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria following Tehran’s orders. If the country sees there is pressure on its supporters in Iraq, it issues orders to the Houthis in Yemen to carry out more criminal acts in order to divert attention and ease pressure on its proxies in these countries.”
The brutality of the Iran led campaign in Syria, and U.S. voices calling for some form of intervention, might have prompted Tehran to give the Houthis a green light to attack American naval ships. The Houthis fired three missiles at the U.S. Navy ship USS Mason last month, in all probability following Tehran’s orders. In retaliation, U.S. Navy destroyer USS Nitze launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, destroying three coastal radar sites in areas of Yemen controlled by the Houthis. These radar installations were active during previous attacks, and attempted attacks on ships navigating the Red Sea. The USS Mason did not sustain any damage. U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the top American commander in the Middle East, said that he suspected Iran’s Shiite Islamic Republic to be behind the twice launched missiles by the Houthi rebels against U.S. ships in the Red Sea.
Al-Arabiya TV (August 16, 2016) claimed that Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) said that missiles made in Tehran were also recently used in Yemen by Houthi militias in cross border attacks against Saudi Arabia. The Saudis it seems, were able to intercept the Iranian manufactured Zelzal-3 rockets, also delivered to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Assad regime forces in Syria. The rockets were fired into the Saudi border city of Najran, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. The Saudi-led coalition has been targeting the Houthis in an effort to restore the internationally-recognized Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
The conflict in Yemen has its recent roots in the failure of the political transition that was supposed to bring a measure of stability to Yemen following an uprising in November, 2011 (The Year of the Arab Spring) that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. President Hadi had to deal with a variety of problems, including attacks by al-Qaeda, a separatist movement in the South, the loyalty of many of the army officers to the former President Saleh, as well as, unemployment, corruption, and food insecurity.
The Zaidi-Shiite Houthi minority captured Yemen’s capital Sanaa on September 21, 2014. They were helped by the Islamic Republic of Iran, who have provided the rebel Houthis with arms, training, and money. As fellow Shiite-Muslims, the Houthis became another Iranian proxy harnessed to destabilize the Sunni-led Arab Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia. Since 2004, the Houthis have fought the central government of Yemen from their stronghold of Saadah in northern Yemen. The Houthis are named after Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who headed the insurgency in 2004 and was subsequently killed by Yemeni army forces. The Houthis, who are allied with Ali Abdullah Saleh, against Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the legitimate President of Yemen, have the support of many army units and control most of the north, including the capital, Sanaa.
The Houthis launched a series of military rebellions against Ali Abdullah Saleh in the previous decade. Recently, sensing the new president’s (Hadi) weakness, they took control of their Northern heartland of Saadah province and neighboring areas. Disillusioned by the transition of power and Hadi’s weakness, many Yemenis, including Sunnis, supported the Houthi onslaught. In January, 2015, the Houthis surrounded the Presidential palace in Sanaa, placing President Hadi and his cabinet under virtual house arrest. The following month, President Hadi managed to escape to the Southern port city of Aden.
Yemen is another flashpoint in the conflict between Shiite-Muslim Iran and Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia, over regional power and influence. Sanaa, along with Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut are Arab capitals now forming the so called Shiite “arc of influence.” In Baghdad, the site of the Abbasid Sunni Caliphate, the Shiites dominate the government of Haider al-Abadi. In Damascus, the capital of the Umayyad Sunni Caliphate, Bashar Assad, an Alawi (offshoot of Shiite Islam) dictator, is ruling over a Sunni majority in a state of civil war. Iran, its Revolutionary Guards, Iraqi Shiite militias, and the Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah, are fighting Sunni Islamists, and genuine Syrian Sunnis, who are frustrated with being ruled by a minority dictator. Beirut is dominated by Hezbollah, the only group allowed to carry arms, whose power exceeds that of the Lebanese army, and whose masters in Tehran set its priorities.
Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb, former head of U.K. Special Forces, wrote in The Telegraph (September 2, 2016), “Iran’s involvement in Yemen must be seen in the broader context of its strategy of challenging the existing Middle East order by generating unrest, which then allows it to maneuver an advantage through the resulting uncertainty. Iranian military forces and their proxies predominate in Iraq and Syria, while other proxies have a long history of involvement in Lebanon and Gaza. Nor are these forces likely to leave the region when the immediate threats such as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are pushed underground or displaced, as we, the West, will.”
Gen. Lamb asserted that “the tragedy of Yemen is that it has become, over the decades, a sphere of contested influence between the grand masters of Empire and superpowers: East against West, Communism versus Capitalism. Today, it is Iranian backed Shiite revivalism against Sunni status quo, an emerging order versus an existing order.” According to Gen. Lamb, Tehran has dissuaded the Houthis from accepting a U.N. peace plan in favor of creating its own “supreme political council” to challenge the legitimate Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
It is tempting for Tehran to enter the exposed underbelly of Saudi Arabia though the Houthis control of Northern Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia. It is however, too expensive a proposition for the Islamic Republic to have to fund another proxy - a failing state like Yemen. While Hezbollah requires millions of dollars in support, Yemen would require billions. Iran is spending a great deal in support of the Assad regime in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, and loyalist Iraqi Shiite militias. Iran would nevertheless like to control the sea lanes into the Red Sea and have access to the Bab Al Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. This would provide it with a strategic vantage point in threatening the U.S. and the West.
Iran’s meddling in Yemen is another example of its Shiite revivalism, and its challenge of the existing Middle East order, regardless of the cost in human lives that its proxies (Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraqi Shiite militias) are inflicting.