Houthi followers hold up posters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a demonstration to commemorate Ashura in Sanaa, Yemen October 12, 2016 (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

February 07, 2017

Pushing Back on Iran: Policy Options in Yemen

U.S. Policy Recommendations
  • Prevent the al Houthis from moving further into Iran’s sphere of influence. A significant faction within the al Houthi movement does not support Iranian control. The isolation of the al Houthis from other sources of support drives them toward Tehran. Breaking the al Houthis’ reliance on Iranian support may also reverse the Iranian absorption of factions within the al Houthi movement. An aggressive policy against the al Houthis in Yemen risks aligning the full group with Iran and strengthening the partnership.
  • Prevent Iran from establishing strategic weapons systems or basing in Yemen. Iran could move strategic weapons systems into Yemen via sea or via a land route through the Omani border. Iran requires the support of only a portion of the al Houthi movement to accomplish this objective. The US must interdict such operations. Iran may try to leverage the al Houthi-Saleh faction into ceding military basing particularly in al Hudaydah port on the Red Sea. Russia could use the argument that it is supporting the counterterrorism fight to gain access to Iranian basing. The current Saudi strategy of pursuing the complete military defeat of the al Houthis increases the likelihood that Iran will be able to bring portions of the al Houthi movement more firmly under its control.
  • Transform how the Saudi-led coalition is operating in Yemen. The US must sustain support for the Saudi-led coalition in order to have leverage over Riyadh. The US should use that leverage to pursue a negotiated political solution at the regional, national, and sub-state level. The final resolution of the conflict must allow Saudi defense minister Mohamed bin Salman to cast it as a win for Saudi Arabia, yet must ensure that the al Houthis are not marginalized, isolated, and dependent on Iran. The US must not out-source its Yemen policy to Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Neither will act to secure US interests in full in Yemen and their divergence on key questions may prolong instability.
Al Houthi movement’s relationship to Iran

Isolation drives the movement into the Iranian network. The incorporation of the leading elements of the al Houthi movement into the Iranian orbit may facilitate the transfer of asymmetrical capabilities from Iran to Yemen and permit these elements to consolidate power within the al Houthi movement.
  • A small faction of the al Houthi leadership was within the Iranian network going into 2014. This faction likely worked with Iran to receive resources, including finances, training, and materiel, to strengthen the group’s position in Yemen. The September 2014 release of imprisoned Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah members by the al Houthis may have been a bid for further Iranian support.
  • The al Houthi-led government became isolated by December 2014 and into early 2015, particularly after it blocked passage of a constitution seen as illegitimate among Yemeni opposition groups. This isolation prompted the al Houthi leadership to turn to Iran, China, and Russia for assistance. Iran quickly cut deals, establishing direct flights between Tehran and Sana’a February 28, 2015, and announcing plans for economic cooperation by March 12.
  • The al Houthi relationship with Hezbollah became public over the course of 2015. There had been unconfirmed reports of Houthis training with Hezbollah in Syria as of 2012 and with Iraqi Shi’a militias in 2014. An al Houthi leader was buried in April 2015 in a Hezbollah cemetery and the al Houthis released pictures of a delegation with Hezbollah leadership in October 2015. Hezbollah provides the al Houthis with weapons-modification expertise.
  • The al Houthis are building relations with groups in the Iranian network, likely to access unique capabilities, possibly including bomb-making expertise. Al Houthi delegations met with Asaib Ahl al Haq leader Qais Khazali in Iraq in October 2015, reported on the group’s website, and in December 2016.

The al Houthi movement is not an Iranian proxy, however. Iranian officials generate the narrative that the al Houthis are part of the “Axis of Resistance.” The al Houthis probably mean more to Iran than Iran does to the al Houthis.

  • The strength of the al Houthi movement itself is overplayed in media reporting. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, not the al Houthis, commands the bulk of the fighting force, high-end capabilities, and resources in northern Yemen. The al Houthi movement could not sustain current levels of control without the continued support of Saleh. Saleh is not an Iranian proxy, nor is he likely to become one.
  • Al Houthi leadership retains its decision-making power and has not subordinated the group to Iranian objectives. Leaders publicly reject Iranian offers of support. It is very likely the al Houthi leadership privately rejected Iranian warnings in August-September 2014 not to press farther than Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
  • Iran provides limited support to the al Houthis in Yemen through Lebanese Hezbollah and a small IRGC advisory team. Imported capabilities include the modification of Yemen’s ballistic missiles to extend their range to target sites in Saudi Arabia. They may also include more advanced missiles for high-profile attacks, like those used against Emirati and US vessels in October 2016. Iranian aid moves by sea and across a land route through Oman.
  • Local al Houthi groups are not all ideologically behind the al Houthi leadership, but see support for the al Houthis as a vector to effect change in Yemen.

Lebanese Hezbollah is not the al Houthi model. Iranian officials draw comparisons between the al Houthis and Hezbollah, but the al Houthi movement does not fit the model and is very unlikely to be able to replicate it in Yemen.

  • The al Houthi movement is highly factionalized. It is not organized hierarchically under a single leader. Powerful families outside of the al Houthi family and independent from Iranian influence comprise the leading ranks of the al Houthi movement, though they have been partially marginalized over time.
  • The Zaydi Shia community in Yemen does not monolithically support the al Houthi movement. The al Houthi movement represents a minority political interest among Zaydi, many of whom back former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
  • The al Houthi movement has historically been contained within the areas in northern Yemen from which it emerged. Its current wider footprint results from the likely temporary alliance it has formed with Saleh, who had previously waged multiple vicious wars against the group when he was president.
  • The IRGC created Hezbollah in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, giving the group the gloss of being the protector of Lebanon against Israel. The al Houthis began the current civil war as the aggressor and have been unable to secure widespread legitimacy. If the Saudi-led coalition continues to press on to full subjugation of Yemen under its imposed puppet, it could conceivably give the al Houthis the veneer of protectors of Yemen against outside invasion. If the Saudis moderate their aims and include reconcilable elements of the al Houthi movement in the post-conflict government, however, the al Houthis will not likely be able to sustain such a narrative.