HMAS Darwin intercepts a small-arms smuggler approximately 170 nautical miles off the coast of Oman. A search of the vessel revealed a significant amount of military weapons hidden inside the cargo hold. (Royal Australian Navy)

April 15, 2016

Signaling Saudi Arabia: Iranian Support to Yemen's al Houthis

HMAS Darwin intercepts a small-arms smuggler approximately 170 nautical miles off the coast of Oman. A search of the vessel revealed a significant amount of military weapons hidden inside the cargo hold. (Royal Australian Navy)

It is well known that Iran is supporting the al Houthi movement against the Saudi-led coalition fighting against it in Yemen. Western navies have interdicted weapons shipments from Iran to the al Houthis, and Secretary of State John Kerry has publicly remonstrated with Tehran over its support.[1] Iranian rhetoric on Yemen is expansive, referring to Sana’a as the fourth Arab capital under Tehran’s control.[2] But, what may be less appreciated is that the scale of Iran’s support appears to be too limited to shape the battlefield at this point and the al Houthi movement is not yet a true Iranian proxy. How should we understand what is going on and what are the implications for U.S. policy in the region?

The most important point to understand is that Iranian activities in Yemen are not about Yemen. They are, rather, part of the regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is now playing out on battlefields and in political and diplomatic arenas throughout the Middle East.

Yemen’s collapse into outright war a year ago expanded the live battlefield for the Iranian-Saudi proxy conflict from Syria to Yemen, building upon relationships the Iranians and Saudis already had in place on the ground. The al Houthis are an amalgamation of Zaydi Shia powerbrokers from Yemen’s northern highlands who have received funding, training, and weapons from Iran.[3] They have a history with Saudi Arabia that predates much of the public Iranian support for the group. The Saudis fought a limited war against the al Houthis, who were fighting the Yemeni government, in 2009-2010 that effectively ended in a truce and was perceived as a defeat for the Saudis.[4] The al Houthis entered into a pragmatic alliance in 2014 with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s network, which includes core factions of the Yemeni military and an extensive tribal network, and by early March 2015, the al Houthi-Saleh forces controlled the majority of Yemeni state infrastructure, despite urgings of restraint from Tehran.[5] The Saudi-led Arab coalition, backed by the United States, intervened to prevent the al Houthi-Saleh alliance from gaining full control of the country in late March 2015. The coalition is now propping up the internationally recognized Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and supporting a loose-knit grouping of armed factions opposed to the al Houthi-Saleh alliance.

Today, aid from Iran and its proxies is flowing to the al Houthi-Saleh alliance. The extent of the support is not clear, but it is far less than Saudi support to Hadi. The appearance of a modified surface-to-air missile in Yemen in December 2015, which the al Houthis dubbed the “Qahir I,” is one indicator of Iranian support.[6] Hezbollahis have also boasted of working in Yemen, though the statements have not been confirmed through other sources. A Hezbollah commander told the Financial Times in May 2015 that eight Hezbollah commanders had been killed in Yemen and that the relationship with the al Houthis went back ten years: “They trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen.”[7] The al Houthis have had an open presence in Beirut since at least 2012.[8] They have publicized their connections to Hezbollah, posting pictures of high-level al Houthi officials meeting with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in October 2015.[9]

Iranian support to the al Houthis appears to fluctuate in response to developments in the regional Iran-Saudi struggle. An Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-escorted shipment of weapons to the al Houthis followed immediately after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in April 2015 imposing an arms embargo on the al Houthi-Saleh alliance.[10] [See Table I for the interdictions.] A September 25 interdiction of Iranian weapons destined for the al Houthis off the coast of Oman followed a Saudi announcement that Saudi-led coalition forces were going to seize Sana’a, a statement made after al Houthi-Saleh forces fired a Tochka missile at a Saudi-led coalition base to the east, killing 67 soldiers.[11]

Three Iranian shipments were interdicted between February 27 and March 28, 2016, most likely sent in response to Saudi actions in Syria. Saudi warplanes and troops deployed to Incirlik, Turkey, in February 2016 as Assad regime and partnered ground forces (including IRGC units), advanced against Saudi-backed Syrian groups.[12] Saudi officials noted that the Kingdom was also prepared to deploy ground troops to fight in Syria, which could directly pit Saudi troops against Iranian troops.[13] Iranian officials publicly scoffed at the notion of Saudi ground troops in Syria, but seem to have backed their scoffing with action to support the al Houthis. They likely meant to demonstrate to the Saudis their willingness and ability to make Riyadh pay on its own soil for its involvement in Syria.[14]

The Iranian arms shipments are not providing the al Houthis with strategic capabilities, however. The shipments include light and medium weaponry, all of which is readily available in Yemen. It is possible that al Houthi-Saleh forces are running low on light weapons among the ranks and are therefore seeking additional supplies. Recent gains by the Saudi-led coalition, particularly along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, have begun to isolate the al Houthi-Saleh forces in northwestern Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition is arming local militias.[15] An Iranian support vector would not be sufficient to re-arm the al Houthi-Saleh forces at any dramatic rate, however, which makes it unlikely that the these shipments are tied to internal Yemeni events. They are much more likely meant as signals to the Saudis and threats of possible future escalation.

Iranian rhetoric adds support to this hypothesis. Iranian officials have continued to offer support to the al Houthis even after the al Houthis publicly refused and even dismissed the Iranian overtures. Iranian Armed Forces General Staff Deputy IRGC Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri responded in early March 2016 to a question about whether Iran would send military advisers to Yemen as it had in Syria by saying that Iran “feels its duty to help the people of Yemen in any way it can.”[16] Jazayeri’s statement occurred when the al Houthis had already achieved a major victory: Saudi officials had just begun direct talks with them.[17] A senior al Houthi official perceived to be close to the leader of the group responded by calling for Iranian officials to stop exploiting the Yemen issue.[18] The early March exchange took place as Iran and Saudi Arabia were preparing for another round of Syria peace talks.

The al Houthis may mean more to Iran than Iran does to the al Houthis. The Iranian regime has characterized the al Houthis as part of its “Axis of Resistance,” Iranian allies that include Hezbollah and the Assad regime, and the regime leverages different vectors within this so-called axis to needle Saudi Arabia and advance Iranian interests. The al Houthis have periodically expressed support for Iran and gratitude for Iran’s assistance, but they remain much more ambivalent in their attitudes to Tehran than loyal and obedient proxies such as Hezbollah, Assad, and the Iraqi Shi’a militias.

This ambivalence makes strategic sense. Iran clearly desires a reliable partner on the Arabian Peninsula with which to threaten and pressure Riyadh, but the al Houthis likely recognize that full-scale proxy-hood may well mean permanent war with Saudi Arabia and its own allies and proxies. If the al Houthis want a resolution to the civil war in Yemen, and it appears that they do, then they would do well to retain some distance from a power that benefits primarily from permanent strife.

That situation offers intriguing possibilities to the U.S. and the Saudis. U.S. and Western naval forces must certainly continue to interdict Iranian supplies moving to the al Houthis to support our Saudi partner in Yemen, but the U.S. must also resist the claims of some Saudi officials that the al Houthis are simply Iranian puppets and must be dealt with as such. It would be a mistake for the U.S. to blindly back Saudi actions in Yemen and to overlook how some of the coalition’s actions in Yemen are driving, not reducing, insecurity. The U.S. must develop a strategy to help find a negotiated settlement of the Yemeni conflict acceptable to the people and not just to the elites. Sound American strategy would reach out to the al Houthis along with other sub-state actors in Yemen, seek common ground with them, and work to facilitate a meaningful resolution of the conflict—including the underlying popular grievances that are driving it—as the best way to prevent Iran from turning its rhetoric into reality.

 
 
TABLE I. WEAPONS SMUGGLING INTERDICTIONS IN THE GULF OF ADEN
SEPTEMBER 2015 – MARCH 2016
 
Crew Number and Nationality
Origin Destination* Intended Recipient Weapons
September 25, 2015[19]
14 Iranian
Iran
Yemen
 
·  18 anti-armor Concourse shells
·  54 anti-tank BGM17 shells
·  15 shell battery kits
·  4 firing guidance systems
·  5 binocular batteries
·  3 launchers
·  1 launcher holder
·  3 batteries
February 27, 2016[20]
18 “various”
 
U.S. Navy assessed in email to NBC that the crew were Iranian.
Iran
Yemen
Houthis*
·  1989 AK-47 assault rifles
·  100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers
·  49 PKM general purpose machine guns
·  39 PKM spare barrels
·  20 60mm mortar tubes
March 20, 2016[21]
10 (nationality not released)
Iran
Yemen
 
·  almost 2,000 AK-47 assault rifles
·  64 Dragunov sniper rifles
·  9 anti-tank missiles
March 28, 2016[22]
(not released)
Iran
Yemen
Houthis*
·  1,500 AK-47 assault rifles
·  200 rocket-propelled grenade launchers
·  21 .50 caliber machine guns
It is not clear whether the intent was to route the arms shipments through Somalia into Yemen using an established arms smuggling network that extends across the Gulf of Aden.[23] The initial French and Australian assessments that the dhows’ destination was Somalia permitted their naval crews to seize the arms caches in order to enforce a UN arms embargo. It is most likely that Yemen, not Somalia, was the final destination based on the Iranian nationality of the September 25 crew, probable Iranian origin, and the war in Yemen.
*Assessment reported by U.S. navy officials.
 
 
 
 

[1] John Kerry, “Remarks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir,” U.S. Department of State, April 7, 2016, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/04/255599.htm.
[2] Ali Reza Zakani, an Iranian parliamentarian, discussed Yemen in the days after the signing of the September 21, 2014, Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA). The PNPA was a deal between the al Houthis and opposition supporters and the Yemeni government that stipulated the formation of a government that would include al Houthi representatives. The text of the PNPA is available here, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2014_2019/documents/darp/dv/darp20141204_05_/darp20141204_05_en.pdf. “Sana’a is the fourth Arab capital to join the Iranian revolution,” Middle East Monitor, September 27, 2014, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/14389-sanaa-is-the-fourth-arab-capital-to-join-the-iranian-revolution.
[3] Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. Moves to Stem Iran Arms Flow to Yemen,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-wants-to-block-iran-from-arming-yemens-houthi-rebels-1428868461.
[4] For analysis of the Sa’ada wars, see Christopher Boucek, “War in Saada: From Local Insurrection to National Challenge,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 5, 2010, http://carnegieendowment.org/2010/05/05/war-in-saada-from-local-insurrection-to-national-challenge.
[5] For a brief account of these developments, see Katherine Zimmerman, “A New Model for Defeating al Qaeda in Yemen,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 10, 2015, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-new-model-for-defeating-al-qaeda-in-yemen-september-10-2015; and Ryan Grim, “Iran Tried to Stop Houthi Rebels in Yemen, Obama Says,” The Huffington Post, August 6, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/iran-tried-to-stop-houthi-rebels-in-yemen_us_55c3ba1be4b0d9b743db627c.  
[6] “Spokesman of armed forces: the rocket that targeted Khalid Air Base is a new achievement,” Sabanews.net, December 13, 2015, http://www.sabanews.net/ar/news412683.htm.
[7] Erika Solomon, “Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthis Open Up on Links,” Financial Times, May 8, 2015, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/e1e6f750-f49b-11e4-9a58-00144feab7de.
[8] The al Houthi-linked al Masirah media organization, founded in 2012, is Beirut-based. See also Andrew Hammond, “Houthi Rebels Seen Gaining New Influence in Yemen,” Reuters, October 3, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/03/us-yemen-houthis-idUSBRE8920QO20121003.
[9] Ansar-Allah.net, an al Houthi-affiliated website, released a picture of an al Houthi delegation meeting with Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 2015. See, “Supreme Revolutionary Committee Delegation Visiting Tehran During a Regional Tour that Includes Many Countries of the World,” Ansar-Allah.net, October 5, 2015, http://www.ansar-allah.net/news/11272.
[10] United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, April 14, 2015, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2216(2015).
[11] Noah Browning, “Arab Coalition in Yemen Sees Victory ‘No Matter What,’” Reuters, September 14, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-marib-idUSKCN0RE1UK20150914.
[12] Hugh Naylor, “Concerns in Saudi Arabia Over Signs of More Military Involvement in Syria,” Washington Post, February 22, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/concerns-in-saudi-arabia-over-signs-of-more-military-involvement-in-syria/2016/02/21/76ef6008-d588-11e5-b195-2e29a4e13425_story.html; Lizzie Dearden, “Saudi Arabia Sends Troops and Fighter Jets to Military Base in Turkey Ahead of Intervention Against ISIS in Syria,” The Independent, February 13, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-sends-troops-and-fighter-jets-to-military-base-in-turkey-ahead-of-intervention-against-a6871611.html; and Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 24, 2016, http://www.irantracker.org/analysis/bucala-kagan-irans-evolving-way-of-war-how-irgc-fights-in-syria-march-24-2016.
[13] “Saudi Arabia Willing to Send Ground Troops to Syria,” Al Jazeera, February 6, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/general-saudi-arabia-set-deploy-troops-syria-160205042542486.html.
[14] IRGC Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi called the announcement of a possible Saudi troop deployment to Syria a “stupid propaganda maneuver,” adding, “If they could, they [Saudi forces] would be in Yemen,” for example. Marie Donovan, Paul Bucala, Caitlin Shayda Pendleton with Ken Hawrey, “Iran News Round Up – February 11, 2016, http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-february-11-2016.
[15] Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP Expanding behind Yemen’s Frontlines,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, February 17, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/zimmerman-aqap-expanding-behind-yemens-frontlines-february-17-2016; Noah Browning, “Saudi-led Coalition Drops Weapons for Allies in Yemeni City,” Reuters, October 28, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-idUSKCN0SM11F20151028; and Jeremy Binnie, “UAE Trains New Yemeni Army,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, November 24, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/56244/uae-trains-new-yemeni-army.
[16] Bozorghmehr Sharafedin, “Iran Could Send Military Advisers to Yemen: Official Suggests,” Reuters, March 8, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-iran-idUSKCN0WA1PM.
[17] James Towey, “2016 Yemen Crisis Situation Report: March 8,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 8, 2016, http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/yemen-crisis-situation-reports-march-8-2016.
[18] “Update 1-Houthi Officials Tells Iran to Stay out of Yemen Crisis,” Reuters, March 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/yemen-security-iran-idAFL5N16H4DR; and March 9, 2016 post on Yousef al Fishi’s Facebook page, accessed April 11, 2016.
[19] Adam Schreck, “Weapons Believed to Be From Iran Seized in Arabian Sea,” Associated Press, September 30, 2015, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/c0fd2d7a2a454d7c993cef8575093fd7/saudi-led-coalition-says-it-seized-iran-arms-bound-yemen.
[20] “HMAS Darwin Seizes Large Weapons Cache,” Australian Navy, March 7, 2016, http://news.navy.gov.au/en/Mar2016/Operations/2744#.VuwbluIrLcs.
[21] “Combined Task Force 150: la frégate Provence réalise une importante saisie d’armes au large de la Somalie,” French Defense Ministry, March 24, 2016, http://www.defense.gouv.fr/actualites/operations/ctf-150-la-fregate-provence-realise-une-importante-saisie-d-armes-au-large-de-la-somalie.
[22] U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs, “Third Illicit Arms Shipment in Recent Weeks Seized in Arabian Sea,” U.S. Navy, April 4, 2016, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=93990.
[23] For an exposition of the arms network between Somalia and Yemen, see Sally Healy and Ginny Hill, “Yemen and Somalia: Terrorism, Shadow Networks and the Limitations of State-Building,” Chatham House, October 2010, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Africa/bp1010_yemensomalia.pdf.
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