After eight years of conflict, the Houthis are now militarily closer to Iran. They are also more integrated than before in the pro-Iranian armed network. However, the Houthis differ from Iran’s proxies in the region, and not only for being part of the Zaydi Shia doctrine. The Yemeni armed movement is economically autonomous from Tehran, with its own political agenda and a distinct, elite-driven structure of power. According to the United Nations, the Houthis received weapons for the first time from Iran since at least 2009, while the Yemeni Zaydi Shia movement was fighting against the government (“Saada wars”), prompting Saudi Arabia to intervene to secure its border from Houthi guerrillas. This means that the increasing alliance between the Houthis and Iran, strengthened by the 2015 conflict, has never really been tested during peacetimes, but only in times of uprising and war. The question is to what extent the Houthis are able to exercise their agency in Yemeni politics –so hypothetically diverging from Iran’s expectations- as talks with Saudi Arabia are still ongoing and the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic agreement was inked.
Increasing integration in the Iranian network
The growing Houthi-Iran integration is increasingly noticeable in warfare, media and propaganda, foreign relations. In terms of warfare, the Houthis have turned from a local guerrilla group to a more sophisticated armed force able to strike ground and maritime targets throughout the region. First, this was achieved through the hybridization with segments of pro-Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regular security forces and, secondly, through the enhanced relationship with Iran.
Security assistance from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF weapons and ammunition smuggling, military training) allowed the Houthis to upgrade their defence capabilities and further develop their asymmetric skills. Together, they also forged new military institutions in Yemen. For instance, the Jihad Council is a tool of Houthis’ strategic integration in the Iranian armed constellation. The Council is headed by Abdel Malek Al Houthi, with a jihad assistant from the Qods and a deputy jihad assistance from Hezbollah. The Council allows the Houthis to further centralize strategic decision-making while ′institutionalizing` Qods and Hezbollah’s advice on military strategy and technical weapons-related aspects. The assistance of the Iranian network also helped the Houthis to build their own weapons factories (drones), as part of a military-industrial complex in controlled areas.
The Iranian armed network played a role in structuring the Houthis’ media. Their official media outlet, Al-Masirah, broadcasts since 2012 from Southern Beirut, with the technical assistance of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar. The Houthis often coordinated with Iran and pro-Iranian Iraqi armed groups on information and propaganda, providing them plausible deniability after attacks: for instance, the Yemeni group claimed responsibility for the attacks against Saudi Aramco in 2019, although these came from the north, not from the south of the kingdom.
Iran doesn’t control the Houthis’ decision-making process, although their worldview is similar. This favours foreign policy convergence. Both the Houthis and the post-1979 Iranian leadership cultivate an anti-imperialist discourse, claiming to protect ′the oppressed` against ′the arrogance`. For example, the Houthis’ narrative harshly opposes the United States and Israel. The slogan of the Yemeni movement is a clear iteration of the Islamic Republic’s propaganda: both the founder Husayn Al Houthi and his father Badreddin, the ideologue of the movement, studied in Iran between the 1980s and the 1990s.
The Proxy Issue
Despite rising integration, the Houthi-Iran relationship is not that of a classic patron-client. While the Houthis often behave like a proxy to gain regional legitimacy and strengthen their position vis-à-vis Yemeni actors, they have their own agenda, and notable agency. The Houthis are pragmatic and adaptable political players. For instance, they often shifted domestic alliances when this was politically convenient, also talking directly with ′the enemy` Saudi Arabia.
Four variables highlight why the Houthis are distinct from Iranian proxies. First, the Houthis are financially autonomous from Iran: they directly extract economic resources from the de facto state in the north (taxes, levies, zakat, khums), and control the smuggling networks stretching in the area. The Houthis were able to penetrate and then replace former Saleh-centred patronage networks with their own webs. However, they are probably the weakest actor for welfare provision in the Iranian constellation, as seen also during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is likely due to widespread poverty in Yemen, especially in their Northern fiefdom.
Second, the Houthis mainly pursue local goals, such as the Northern regions’ greater autonomy and participation to state revenues. Third, the Houthis don’t belong to the Twelver Shia branch like the Iranians. They are a rupture stream within Zaydism: differently from the Zaydi doctrine, they haven’t appointed an imam so far, while they also distinguish from khomeinism. As noted by Charles Schmitz, the Houthis haven’t provided their leader a formal role within the state architecture, yet they have shaped an Islamic Republic-like government guided by a revolutionary movement. Fourth, the Houthis claim to represent the oppressed -as other pro-Iranian groups in the region do- and Northern marginalized areas. However, their leadership presents not only an unique family-based connotation (the Al Houthi family), but also a class dimension (sayyid; sâda, the non-tribal Zaydi religious elite): a sort of ′monarchism` which can’t be traced elsewhere in the Iranian network.
Hezbollah’s Mentoring Role
Lebanon’s Hezbollah are the Houthis’ closest ally in the Iranian constellation. Hezbollah has played the role of mentor with regard to military training, allowing the Houthis to strengthen both regular (ex. infantry tactics) and irregular (ex. mine warfare) capabilities, improving guided missile operations against tanks and anti-shipping attacks.
To an extent, the Houthis display some similarities to Hezbollah. First, they both emerged as resistance movements against perceived oppression by their neighbours. Second, their charismatic leaders, Abdel Malek Al Houthi and Hassan Nasrallah, are ultimate decision-makers but don’t have formal roles in governments and state institutions. Third, war was a foundational moment for both the armed movements (the 1975-1989 Lebanese civil war; Yemen’s Saada wars 2004-10), and then was decisive in upgrading their political and military weight in the region (the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war; the 2015 Saudi-led military intervention). Fourth, they are locally rooted movements that have been able to develop a national and ultimately a regional narrative. Fifth, they adopt a populist political discourse against corruption, with an ideology and political platform mostly elaborated in reaction against someone, rather than fully expressed from a theoretical perspective.
Houthis and Iran: A Marriage of Wartime Convenience.
To some extent, Tehran “bandwagoned on Houthi successes”. In fact, the Houthis’ resilience and unexpected capabilities allowed the Iranians to indirectly put Saudi Arabia under pressure, and along its border, with a limited material investment. Moreover, Iran has also gained an indirect access to the Red Sea due to the Houthis’ presence in Hodeida. The IRGC-QF is primarily interested in maintaining transit points for weapons and smuggling through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, also to support armed allies. However, Hodeida and the neighbouring Red Sea coast represent, despite the Saudi-led blockade, both an entry-point as well as a linchpin for the Iranian maritime depth. Yemen would be increasingly used by Iran as a platform for weapons smuggling benefitting, for instance, Hamas. Arms sent to Yemen would then be shipped to Sudan, through Egypt, all the way to the Gaza Strip.
The Houthis have largely benefitted from Iran’s support so far as this is a marriage of mutual convenience. The Yemeni Zaydi movement has been able to fight a protracted conflict without losing controlled territories, which include the capital Sanaa, thanks to Iranian-related military training and weapons. While Iran’s support has been extremely effective in wartime, would Tehran be able, and willing, to support Houthis’ political goals also in peacetime, or at least, during an hypothetical a ceasefire season? The point is how much the relationship with Iran binds, and limits, the Houthis’ decision-making, especially vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. This hasn’t been the case during the war, while it could become the issue towards a post-conflict season.
Source » ispionline