One of Saudi Arabia’s stated objectives for intervening in Yemen in March 2015 was to roll back a mostly fictitious Iranian influence.
For years, mounting instability had many predicting the collapse of Yemen. These forecasts became reality in 2014 when years of accumulated tension pushed the country into civil war. On one side is an alliance of the Houthis, a northern movement that has been fighting the government since 2004, and troops and militias loyal to a former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the other side are supporters of the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was overthrown by the Houthis in early 2015.
The war intensified in March 2015 when a coalition of 10 states led by Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes against the Houthi-Saleh coalition. Riyadh’s declared objectives are to roll back the Houthis and reinstate Hadi. Saudi Arabia claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, leading it to frame the war as an effort to counter Iran’s influence. The Saudis are not the only ones to label the Houthis puppets of Iran. Politicians and media in the West, in particular, also frequently describe them as Iranian proxies.
Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.
Instead, the war in Yemen is driven by local grievances and competition for power among Yemeni actors. The Houthis and Saleh want to overturn the political order that emerged after the uprisings of 2011: Saleh wants to return to power, having lost the presidency in the wake of popular protests, while the Houthis want a greater say in national affairs. In other words, the Houthis want in, Saleh wants back in, and the Hadi bloc wants to keep them both out.
Iran’s limited support for the Houthis
According to a 2015 report to the U.N. Security Council Iran Sanctions Committee, Iran probably started providing small amounts of weapons to the Houthis in 2009 — five years after the first round of fighting between the Houthis and government forces. In 2011, U.S. officials — who until then had been dismissive of such accusations — started to acknowledge that Iran was likely responsible for the delivery of automatic rifles, grenade launchers and cash, probably in the millions of dollars.
The Houthi’s takeover of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, in September 2014 prompted Iran to increase its support. It now appears that small numbers — perhaps dozens — of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, with assistance from Lebanese Hezbollah, have set up a train and equip program for the Houthis. There have also been reports of intensifying shipping activitybetween Iran and Yemen.
This assistance, however, remains limited and far from sufficient to make more than a marginal difference to the balance of forces in Yemen, a country awash with weapons. There is therefore no supporting evidence to the claim that Iran has bought itself any significant measure of influence over Houthi decision-making.