A boy holds a poster of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and al Houthi movement leader Abdul Malik al Houthi in Sana'a, Yemen in October 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

March 26, 2017

Warning Update: Iran's Hybrid Warfare in Yemen

Iran may deploy more advanced military capabilities to Yemen to support the al Houthi-Saleh faction, which faces increasing pressure. Iran has provided al Houthi-Saleh forces with sophisticated arms and advisors from its proxy network, including Afghan and Shia Arab specialists. The deployment of interoperable proxy forces is part of Iran’s evolution of a form of  hybrid warfare that will allow it to project significant force far from its borders and fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region. Iran may increase its engagement in Yemen if U.S.  support for the Saudi-led coalition threatens the al Houthi-Saleh faction’s  survival.Iran may increase its engagement in Yemen if U.S.  support for the Saudi-led coalition threatens the al Houthi-Saleh faction’s  survival.

Iranian weapons are appearing on the Yemeni battlefield.

  • Iran attempted to smuggle over 2,000 small arms into Yemen in 2015 and 2016. The smuggled weapons included firearms that Iran distributes to Shia militias in Iraq.
  • Coalition and partner forces intercepted four Iranian weapon shipments likely bound for Yemen in the Arabian Sea in February, March, and November 2016.
  • Iran likely facilitated the development of an al Houthi-Saleh naval mining program. Mines struck a Hadi government coast guard ship near Mokha port, Taiz governorate on March 11 and a fishing vessel near Midi district, northwestern Hajjah governorate on March 8.

Iran provides sophisticated weaponry that allows the al Houthi-Saleh faction to hold terrain, counter Saudi-led coalition capabilities, and threaten U.S.  freedom of movement in the Red Sea.

  • Al Houthi-Saleh forces may be using Iranian-provided drones to achieve strategic effects. Al Houthi-Saleh forces use the Qasef-1, an offensive drone similar to Iranian-made models, to destroy Saudi-led coalition air defense systems and facilitate ballistic missile attacks. Iranian technological support may be responsible for successful strikes in recent weeks, including a strike that killed more than 20 Hadi government troops at a base in Ma’rib governorate, central Yemen, on March 17 and a strike that killed the Yemeni Armed Forces Deputy Chief of Staff near Mokha port, Taiz governorate, southwestern Yemen, on February 22.
  • Iran or its proxies likely transferred the technology that al Houthi-Saleh forces used to conduct an unmanned remote-controlled boat attack on a Saudi vessel in the Red Sea on January 30.
  • The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or Lebanese Hezbollah likely supplied or modified the anti-ship cruise missiles that al Houthi-Saleh forces fired at the USS Mason in October 2016. IRGC or Hezbollah operatives  may have provided direct technical expertise or training for the attack.
  • The IRGC Quds Force (IRGC-QF) likely facilitated the transfer of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) to al Houthi-Saleh forces in 2016. Saudi security forces discovered multiple EFPs along the Saudi-Yemeni border in early March 2017.
  • Al Houthi-Saleh forces are using Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied anti-tank guided weapons that were not part of Yemen’s pre-civil war stockpiles.
  • Al Houthi-Saleh ballistic missile launches increased in 2017. Lebanese Hezbollah or IRGC-QF likely provided technical expertise to modify pre-existing Scud missile stockpiles for longer range capabilities.

Iranian proxies may provide training and logistical support to al Houthi-Saleh forces inside  Yemen.

  • Iran has a network of proxy forces that includes Lebanese Hezbollah and Afghan, Pakistani, and Iraqi Shia militias. Iran uses these forces to conduct conventional military operations in support of the Assad regime in Syria.
  • Afghan Shia specialists may be assisting al Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen. IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, which coordinate proxy operations, are likely present in Yemen as well.

The Iranian proxy network supports the al Houthi movement.

  • Lebanese Hezbollah provides training and medical care for al Houthi fighters in Lebanon.
  • Al Houthi representatives have met with representatives of Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias in Baghdad on multiple  occasions.


  • Iran may attempt to incorporate the al Houthis into its Axis of Resistance coalition, which Iran uses to contain the U.S. and its regional allies. The al Houthis are not an Iranian proxy at this time, but continued conflict will drive the al Houthi-Saleh faction closer to Iran. U.S. action against the al Houthi-Saleh bloc could also force the al Houthis to deepen ties with Tehran.
  • Iran will use its hybrid warfare capabilities to counter increased U.S. involvement in Yemen, entangling the U.S. in the  Saudi-Iranian conflict.
  • Further escalation in the Yemeni civil war will threaten freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, risking both global commercial markets and the U.S. Navy’s freedom of movement in the region.
  • Increased Iranian involvement will prolong Yemen’s civil war and make the conflict more sectarian. These conditions will worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and allow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to expand its support base within Yemen’s Sunni population.

Read a recent report by CTP and the Institute for the Study of War on the Iranian way of war in Syria, as well as CTP’s policy recommendations for  re-engaging and  countering Iran in Yemen. Keep up to date on the Yemen conflict with CTP’s latest Yemen Crisis Situation Report.