Who Are the Houthis, and Why Do They Shout ‘Death to America’?
About 170 nautical miles off the coast of Oman, a small, stateless fishing vessel was intercepted in March 2016 by the HMAS Darwin, an Australian navy ship operating under Combined Task Force 150, which is responsible for counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.
On board the Samer, the Australian crew discovered a large cache of weapons, including 100 rocket-propelled grenades, 1,989 AK-47 rifles, and 49 PKM general purpose machine guns, that appeared to have been manufactured in Iran.
The incident marked one of four interdictions of Iranian smuggling vessels from September 2015 through March 2016 that yielded, in total, more than 5,000 AK-47 rifles and 80 anti-tank guided missiles, as well as machine guns and sniper rifles, according to data released by the United States Navy.
Based on interrogations of crew members and examinations of GPS data on board the five vessels, the Navy determined that the weapons shipments had originated in Iran. “We know they came from Iran and we know the destination,” said US Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, who oversees American naval operations in the Middle East.
“It’s not something that’s going to come with an instruction manual,” he explained, alluding to the fact that the Iranians were not only providing weapons to rebel groups, but also training them in how to operate advanced weapons systems. “We think the Iranians got some hand in this,” Donegan concluded.
The findings of the Navy are supported by a report published by the Conflict Armament Research that “suggests the existence of a weapon pipeline extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen, which involves the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from an Iranian stockpile.”
This is further evidence of Iranian weapons being shipped abroad despite a UN restriction on arms transfers from Iran. The Islamic Republic has faced allegations in the past over violating the embargo in support of proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories, and Yemen.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in March 2015, he stressed that his country’s concerns about Iran’s malign role in the Middle East go far beyond the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The prime minister claimed that Iran had “gobbled up” four Arab capitals through its influence: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and, most recently, Sana’a.
According to Benjamin Weinthal, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “The Iranian-sponsored Houthis is part and parcel of the spread of the Islamic Republic’s incorrigibly reactionary revolution to the Arabian Peninsula.” His claim echoes a statement by Alireza Zakani, an Iranian lawmaker close to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who boasted that Sana’a was now the fourth Arab city to have joined the Islamic Revolution after Beirut (via Hezbollah), Damascus (via the Assad regime), and Baghdad (via Iraq’s Shia-led central government).
Iran has also been accused by Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Western-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia of aiding the Houthi coup in the country. The Houthis, a rebel group from the north of Yemen, ousted the government from the capital Sana’a in September 2014, and the United States and other Western governments have since supplied large quantities of weapons in support of the embattled government. The Houthi rebels made advances across Yemen largely because of their alliance with well-connected and well-equipped loyalists of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and their ability to exploit grievances among the population with the poor performance of the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
By March 2015, the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists controlled most of Yemen’s major cities and pushed aside the Saudi-supported government of President Hadi, prompting Riyadh to launch a military operation aimed at taking out the Houthis and their infrastructure. The Saudis also instituted a naval blockade to stop the flow of Iranian weapons into Yemen.
The Houthis, officially called Ansar Allah, are a homegrown organization that originated in northern Yemen in the 1990s and fought against Yemen’s governments on and off since 2004. When Salafists began preaching the Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam in Yemen, the Houthis formed a counter-movement in defense of the Zaidi tradition that had informed Yemeni culture for centuries.
In part because of Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States, the Houthis adopted a strident anti-Western rhetoric that originated in Iran and is frequently invoked by its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah. “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam” — the credo of the Houthis can be found smeared with graffiti on mosques and other public institutions across Houthi-controlled territory.
The stark similarities in rhetoric have led to the Houthis being portrayed as an Iranian-backed Shia insurgency group. Yet until war broke out in Yemen in 2011, the Houthis were not characterized in sectarian language by the local population nor were they known for ties to the Islamic Republic. Unlike the Iranian regime, the Houthis do not adhere to the Shia Twelver Islam that is predominant in Iran, but follow the school of Zaidi Islam, similar to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.
For quite some time, allegations of Houthi-Iranian cooperation were therefore overblown, backed up only by scant evidence. However, circumstances have since changed and Iran’s hand in the civil war in Yemen and its attempt to project power on the Arabian Peninsula can no longer be denied.
Seeing how Iran was supporting and sponsoring other foreign actors across the Middle East, it made sense for the Houthis to reach out to the Islamic Republic at a time they became increasingly under pressure at home and isolated internationally. Cooperation with non-state actors is an integral part of Iran’s foreign policy to consolidate power across a region dominated by Sunni Islam. Examples are the Islamic Republic’s links to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iranian militias fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Before the Houthi rebels entered the capital Sana’a in 2014, Iran started to support the insurgency with weapons, money, and training. According to Reuters, a senior Iranian official confirmed to them that the Quds Force, a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for their extraterritorial operations, had a “few hundred” military personnel in Yemen to train Houthi fighters. They also reported that, in return, about 100 Houthi members had traveled to Iran for training at a Revolutionary Guards base near the city of Qom, although they could not independently verify the authenticity of the information. In March 2015, Lebanon’s NOW Media reported that Houthi fighters were receiving training in Syria on behalf of Iran.
Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, a spokesman for the Arab coalition fighting the Houthis, told Reuters: “We don’t lack information or evidence that the Iranians, by various means, are smuggling weapons into the area.”
“We observe that the Kornet anti-tank weapon is on the ground, whereas before it wasn’t in the arsenal of the Yemeni army or of the Houthis. It came later,” Asseri added.
Statements such as these echo concerns of Western governments. Tobias Ellwood, the UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, told parliament in October 2015 that the British government was “concerned by Iranian support to the Houthis, including reports that Iran has transferred weapons to Yemen which would be contrary to a UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and the Security Council’s embargo on the export of weapons by Iran.”
In addition to weapons, money, and military training, the Houthis have also received support on the propaganda front. Their television channel, Al Masirah, is broadcasting from Beirut with the assistance of Iran’s terror proxy Hezbollah, which holds enormous influence over the city’s southern suburbs. Cooperation between the Houthis and Hezbollah has long been a subject of speculation, particularly because of the striking tactical similarities between the Houthi takeover of Sana’a and the events in Beirut in 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen seized control of large parts of Lebanon’s capital.
If Iran’s influence in Yemen was hard to detect in the past, it is now impossible to miss, and as the war drags on, this influence continues to grow. In April 2017, the Houthi leadership appointed Beraas Shams al-Din Muhammad Sharaf al-Din, a cleric educated in Iran, as the new mufti to serve as the leading religious authority for the group in Sana’a. Several leading Houthi supporters have also converted to Twelver Shia Islam over the last two decades, and Sharaf al-Din is believed to be one of the most important links between the group and the Islamic Republic, facilitating the ideological marriage between the two parties.
A report by Chatham House, based on interviews with individuals who have been granted rare access to the Houthis’ inner circle of leaders, suggests “that the core leadership is in many cases genuinely committed to the Islamic revolutionary principles set out by Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, which in turn borrow heavily from those of Iran.”
It is an assessment that Weinthal shares. “The Houthis vigorously pursue Iran’s ongoing war on the US and Israel. Take the example of the Houthis’ attack on Saudi Arabia’s naval vessel employing suicide boats in January. Two Saudis were murdered in that Houthi attack,” he said.
US intelligence officials speculated at the time that the attack’s intended target may have been an American warship. The Houthis and officials in Tehran have boasted, with much public fanfare, about their ability to attack Saudi Arabia and inflict damage on the Western-backed coalition in Yemen.
“Just this month, the Houthis fired a missile at a United Arab Emirates (UAE) ship loaded with medical goods. The medical supplies were destined to help victims of the Cholera epidemic in Yemen where roughly 1,000 people have died since April,” Weinthal said.
“The UAE is a crucial US partner in the fight against extremism in the region. Last October, the Houthis targeted an Emirati ship with a missile. The Houthi nautical terrorism continues unabated,” Weinthal explained, adding that “all of this helps to explain that the Iran-Houthi alliance is the chief cause of jingoism in Yemen and in Gulf waters.”
A senior Iranian official told Reuters that Major General Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Quds Force, met with top Islamic Revolutionary Guard members in Tehran in February 2017 to discuss Iran’s role in Yemen and to look at ways to “strengthen their [Houthis] hand in the region.”
“They are planning to create a Hezbollah-like militia in Yemen. To confront Riyadh’s hostile policies … Iran needs to use all its cards,” he said.
Iran’s increased meddling in the civil war in Yemen suggests that Tehran is nervous about the new direction of US foreign policy under the Trump administration, which seems to have reversed Obama’s realignment with the Islamic Republic. Iran is therefore looking for new battlegrounds to challenge the authority of the United States and its allies, particularly its arch rival Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration, over recent months, has substantially increased military support for the Western-backed Saudi-led coalition that is fighting the Houthis in Yemen in support of the Hadi government. Underscoring what appears to be a major escalation of US involvement in Yemen, the US military, on orders of the president, carried out 70 airstrikes in the country in March 2017 — more than twice the number for all of 2016.
The conflict was also high on the agenda of President Trump’s maiden foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. The White House set the stage for a tougher stance towards Iran regionally when, during his visit to the kingdom, the president endorsed Riyadh’s campaign to challenge Iranian influence across the Middle East with $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” President Trump said during his press conference in Riyadh.
This March marked two years since the start of the brutal war in Yemen between the Western-backed Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Yemen has long been described as the “forgotten conflict,” with the world transfixed on the ongoing war in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State. But 1,500 miles away another conflict is taking place with consequences that reach well beyond the borders of the war-ravaged country.
Yemen is the latest project in Iran’s grand plan of ascendancy in the region for which they use the Houthi rebels as a vehicle of projecting power on the Arab Peninsula. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently threatened that the next war with Israel could see thousands of Shia militia fighters join forces with Hezbollah to fight Israel. “This could open the way for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate — from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
If what he says turns out to be correct, the Islamic Republic could significantly tighten its influence in the region surrounding Israel. Iran, with the support of their local proxies, would then completely encircle Israel on the Syrian, Lebanese, Gazan, and Yemeni frontiers.
Julie Lenarz is a Senior Fellow at The Israel Project and the Executive Director of the London-based Human Security Centre. She tweets @MsJulieLenarz. This article was originally published in The Tower.