Houthi soldier standing at a checkpoint in Sana’a. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Houthis’ missiles targeting Saudi Arabia became more developed and far-reaching during the current war, thus prompting questions about Iran’s role in Yemen. Many stories circulated about Iran smuggling weapons to Houthis despite the blockade and tight control on all air, land and sea ports in the country. It is also believed that Iranian experts are developing Houthis’ weapon capacities.
Articles and research papers either undermine the Iranian-Houthi relationship questioning any ties between them to appease Saudi Arabia’s concerns and dismiss its war on Yemen as unnecessary, or they represent Houthis as Iranian puppets, thus making the Saudi war a proxy one against Iran and serving the strategic goals of the kingdom. But, many facts prove that the truth lies somewhere in between.
It goes without saying that Iranians and Houthis have sectarian differences. Houthis are Shiite Zaidis, and Zaidism is a Shiite denomination found only in Yemen. Iran follows the Twelver doctrine that is common in several Muslim countries like Iraq and Pakistan, among others. But, Iranians constitute the majority of followers of the Twelver belief.
Just like other Shiites, the followers of the Twelver belief have their own political story that is different from the Sunni one about the Prophet’s political succession. They have their political ruler who has high religious esteem and is called the imam. However, they believe that Hussein Bin Ali Abi Taleb had 12 descendants and that the 12th one vanished but will reappear. Consequently, they do not have a practical vision for political rule until the missing imam appears. However, the guardianship of the Islamic jurist theory [vilayet e-faqih] solved this imbalance. On the other hand, Zaidism is different because the imamate did not stop with the 12th imam’s disappearance. Zaidis believe that any of Prophet Mohammad’s grandsons can call for the imamate, and their teachings allow them to rebel against an oppressive imam.
There are two core differences between the Twelver doctrine and Zaidism. For one, most Iranians are Twelver Shiites. The Iranian state adopted this sect during the Safavid era in the 16th century as part of an operation to revive the Persian national identity, and indeed the Twelver belief and Iran became inseparable1.
Zaidism, however, is limited to the northern part of Yemen, as in north Sanaa and its surroundings. It became widespread on the lands of the Hamdan tribe only. So, it is a regionalist-tribal sect in Yemen. The area where it is focused is called Upper Yemen, according to the old pre-Islam division that is different from Yemen’s modern division into north and south, and this area has controlled Yemen since the 17th century2.
The second difference is the nature of the religious authority’s role for each sect. The religious authority in Iran has an independent financial source from the khums funds that believers pay to clerics.
The Zaidi religious authority, like the Sunni one, has its own financial resources linked to the political authority. Therefore, it is not independent and is affiliated with the state. It was marginalized and faced clampdown following the republican revolution in north Yemen in 1962. It did not resume its activities until the early 1990s when the public sphere became more open and political freedoms were encouraged after the Yemeni unification in 1990.
The Iranian revolution and the Shiite emergence
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Iranian Embassy started sending invitations to young Yemeni men to visit Iran and get introduced to the Iranian revolution experience in the 1980s. Many Zaidi men were interested, mainly Mohammad Azan, Abdul Karim Jadban and Hussein al-Houthi, founder of the Houthi group. Some Zaidi scholars like Badr Din al-Houthi who is Hussein’s father and Abdul Malik, the current Houthi leader, visited Iran.
Houthi’s sermons won him the support of followers and advocates, and they reflected his ideology with clear influence from the Iranian Revolution model and religiously-oriented political leadership. He would use Imam Khomeini and Hezbollah as examples for resistance and for fighting colonization and Zionism.
At the same time, Houthi considered Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden’s opposition to the US and Israel a mere game to turn the nation’s attention away from the real resistance leaders. He then borrowed slogans from the Iranian revolution like “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”. It is important to note the difference between Ayatollah Khomeini who was a prominent, well-read cleric and Houthi who has modest cultural and religious knowledge. This distinction is evident in their public speaking skills and their tackling of ideas.
The armed confrontation between Houthis and the Armed Forces of Yemen began in 2003. Since the fourth round of the war in 2007, Hezbollah’s impact began appearing gradually in Houthis’ battle techniques. Videos were posted showing Houthis’ military operations that resembled those that Hezbollah conducted against Israel. Even the group’s internal structure mimicked Hezbollah’s, like the politburo of the leadership and the organizational structure of the military current. This proves that Houthis are in contact with Hezbollah and perhaps received training from them3.
During the Saadah wars, on May 18, 2004, Zaidi scholars issued a statement denying the Houthis’ affiliation with Zaidism. One of the main signatories was Ahmad Mohammad al-Shami [Zaidi] who joined the Houthi movement in 2011. This shows that most signatories were just toadying to the government rather than expressing a true ideological stance4.
Nothing proves the rumours claiming that Houthis converted to the Twelver doctrine ideologically but represent a radical Zaidi group that opposes Sunni Islam. Jaroudiah [Zaidism] is a branch of Zaidism that has long been considered marginal in Yemen. Still, many Yemenis converted from Zaidism to the Twelver faith because the Zaidi religious authority became weaker following the September 1962 revolution in the north.
After the 2011 revolution, Iran increased its presence in Yemen by inviting activists and young revolutionaries to visit Iran or by holding conferences related to the Yemeni revolution in Beirut. The Gulf initiative was a political agreement signed in February 2012 between the ruling party (General People’s Congress) and the opposition parties (the Joint Meeting Parties). The initiative excluded the Houthis who became the opposition. Nevertheless, they still participated in the National Dialogue Conference which was part of the transitional phase in the initiative.
After the dialogue ended in January 2014, Yemen entered a phase of political stagnation and public agitation due to the deterioration of services and weakness in the performance of the government and president, thus giving Houthis space to take action and voice their opposition.
A serious political crisis broke out in Yemen when Houthis opposed the fuel price hike after the fall of Omran governorate adjacent to Sanaa in July 2014. Houthis then started their armed sit-ins inside Sanaa and on its outskirts. Negotiations were later launched between the government and Houthis to reach an agreement. The Sultanate of Oman played a mediating role, and political advisor to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Abdul Karim Aryani, said that no agreement was signed and no decision was taken before consulting Tehran first.
The Iranian intervention in the negotiations is undeniable. Iran believed Houthis would play the same role that Hezbollah is playing through the Peace and National Partnership Agreement by controlling the political process without single-handedly assuming responsibility for the rule.
Houthis signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, and Sanaa fell without any resistance from the army or other parties. But, Houthi did not keep his end of the bargain and did not retreat from the cities after the formation of the national partnership government. Instead, he and his men expanded their control to the other cities and stepped up their armed escalation until the already fragile agreement faltered in January 2015. Houthis surrounded the presidential palace. In March, they continued their military expansion towards Taiz then to the south; shelling the palace where President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi resided in Aden after he escaped house arrest in Sanaa.
The Houthis failed to abide by the agreement they had signed. They could not build any political alliance with any party, except for a weak and troubled one with former President Saleh — an alliance merely born out of need because of the Saudi-led war and one that was never meant to last. This shows the difference between Houthis and Hezbollah, as the latter succeeded in building alliances and committing to political agreements.
Houthis’ alliances suffered due to the circumstances that gave rise to the group in an isolated region like Saadah. Houthis were more ignorant to changes in Yemeni society and less capable of learning and practicing pragmatic politics [as opposed to Hezbollah]. Houthis’ behavior can be explained by the group’s ideological vision which is based on godly empowerment that would allow it to restore its religious and historical heritage spanning from the 17th century until 1962 and represented by the imamate in Yemen or north Yemen.
Between Iran and Saudi Arabia
The first mission that Houthi accomplished after conquering Sanaa was besieging the political security building to release the prisoners arrested on the grounds of the Jihan boat case. The Yemeni government said Jihan was an Iranian boat loaded with arms for Houthis. At the same time, Alireza Zakani, Tehran city representative in the Iranian parliament, said that Sanaa is the fourth Arab capital under the Iranian control. But, Houthi kept denying any relations with Iran until Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Yemen and suspended its civil aviation in the country in February 2015. It was only then that Houthi announced that flights would be arranged between Sanaa and Tehran twice a day, and his ties with Tehran became undeniable. This sparked tensions with Saudi Arabia, especially in the last days before the Saudi military intervention. Houthis launched a military maneuver on the borders with the kingdom in March 2015. However, it was not because of Houthis’ religious descent [Shiite Zaidism] that relations between Houthis and Saudi Arabia were jeopardized. After all, the kingdom had supported the Zaidi imamate in the 1960s to the detriment of the Egypt-backed republican regime.
The nature of political conflicts changed over time from a conflict between regressive monarchies and progressive republican regimes in the 1960s into sectarian strife in our current era; leading to bickering with the Houthis. The first armed clash between Houthis and Saudi Arabia broke out in 2009 when the kingdom made a military intervention in the Saadah war under the pretext that the Houthis occupied Jabal al-Dukhan in Saudi Arabia. The confrontations ended when the Houthis retreated following brokerage from Yemeni Hashemite families living in Saudi Arabia since their escape after the 1962 revolution. As per this brokerage, Houthis made sure to secure Saadah’s borders with Saudi Arabia without any problems.
Saudi Arabia is more interested in having harmonious ties with Houthis than their ally Saleh because they control the border region with the kingdom. The latter also sees Saleh as a traitor who stabbed it in the back, and it cannot trust him again. Therefore, it signed an agreement, short-lived as it was, with Houthis in Dhahran; ensuring that Saudi Arabia would stop shelling Sanaa if Houthis halted their attacks on the borders.
Iranian ally or local group?
On the one hand, it is difficult to ignore all evidence pointing to a relationship between Houthis and Iran. Their slogans, discourse and practical action are quite similar, not to mention the flights between Sanaa and Tehran twice a day, knowing that the two countries do not share any economic, social or trade ties.
On the other hand, Houthis and Iranians sing a different sectarian tune. Houthis constitute an extension of the imamate which ruled Yemen for hundreds of years. The group’s expansion was a result of internal factors related to the nature of retaliatory conflicts between the different political parties. Each party used Houthis as a vengeance tool against the other, until the group developed and expanded by taking advantage of the huge political vacuum in the country.
Unlike the slogans and rhetoric of Houthi claiming that he is fighting imperial forces and colonialization, his actual moves show that he represents a military power seeking to take over the rule in Yemen. Despite his anti-US rhetoric, he showed good faith to cooperate with the US to fight terrorism and did not step on its interests in Yemen. He also abided by all his agreements with Saudi Arabia, especially to secure the borders, except in times of war when these agreements were overlooked.
Houthis are a Yemeni group that does not seek a regional role, and Iran has no interests to protect in Yemen. It only sees Yemen as a footstool to launch a not-so-risky and low cost battle of attrition against Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia considers Yemen a strategic depth that must pledge complete loyalty and subordination to the kingdom. With the sectarian conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is difficult for the kingdom to keep mum about a Shiite movement [Houthis] affiliated with Iran and controlling the capabilities of the Yemeni state. Saudi Arabia naturally fears for its security and interests under such circumstances, although its military intervention increased Houthis’ power in Yemen, specifically in the north. Moreover, the Houthi expansion was a natural result of Saudi Arabia's ongoing involvement in weakening the Yemeni state, and its struggle to manage the Yemeni affair after the death of Crown Prince Sultan in 2011 who had been handling the affair since 1962.
The Yemeni conflict was a domestic one with regional implications. The Saudi military intervention increased the regional dimension of the conflict. This will push Houthis towards Iran, especially as they failed to build any internal alliances, and they will need Iran more to compensate for their internal political weakness. Still, Yemen’s internal arena is full of surprises, and loyalties might change. After all, the Iranian-Houthi relations are not strong enough, and Iran does not have firm knowledge of the Yemeni affairs and is not as involved as Saudi Arabia in the country. Besides, ties between Yemen and Saudi Arabia go deeper than their neighbourly relationship.
1 Labbad, Mustafa (2008). Gardens of Grief. Cairo. Shorouk Bookstores.
2 Dresch, Paul. (1989). Tribes, government, and history in Yemen. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Ch1
3 Salmoni, Barak A., Bryce Loidolt, and Madeleine Wells. Regime and periphery in northern Yemen: the Huthi phenomenon. Santa Monica, CA: National defense research institute (RAND), 2010.pp 143-148
4 Al Batoul, Abdul Fattah (2007). Threads of Darkness. Sanaa. Nachwan al-Humairi Publishing and Research House