Iranian Influence in Yemen: Covert and Overt Backing of Houthi Rebels
Though it continually denies any substantial involvement in the Yemeni Civil War, Iran’s support for Houthi rebels has been visible to the international community since the Arab Spring.
Why is Iran supporting Houthi rebels?
Iranian support for Houthi rebels in Yemen is only one part of the country’s overarching Middle Eastern strategy. In its pursuit of regional hegemony, Shia-dominated Iran seeks to expand its influence and crowd out the influence of its most threatening rival in the region, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. The two nations are fighting a collection of Cold War-esque proxy wars across the entire Middle East. Yemen is just one stage on which these bloody tensions are playing out.
The Houthi rebels represent Zaidism, a minority sect of the Shi’a branch of Islam. Though their beliefs do not fall entirely in line with the Twelver beliefs of the Iranian government, the Iranian government still sees them as an ally through which they can exercise greater influence throughout the region. By providing resources to and fostering relationships with Houthi leadership, Iran hopes to ensure the installation of another government that will counter Saudi influence in the region.
How is Iran influencing/supporting Houthi rebels?
Iranian support for Houthi rebels comes primarily in two forms: covert military support and political courtship.
UN reports indicate that Iran has been smuggling weapons and resources to Houthi militants since 2009 (violating UN sanctions), though its support only became clearly apparent between 2012 and 2014 (Landry 2015). Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants and official Iranian soldiers are fighting alongside and providing advanced training to the Houthi militants, who otherwise would have little access to such training (Block 2018). Houthi soldiers and leaders receive training in Lebanon from Hezbollah leaders, and Iranian leaders have admitted that they have several hundred members of the Quds Force administering training and fighting alongside Houthi rebels (Bayoumi and Ghobari 2014).
Numerous fishing vessels displaying Iranian markings and piloted by Iranians have been seized containing “surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and ammunition” (Feierstein 2018) as well as anti-tank and helicopter missiles, though the Iranian government denies any involvement in such smuggling (Jonathon 2017, Landry 2015). American officials have also stated that Iranian aid has taken the form of a “a stream of automatic weapons… bomb-making materials, and several million dollars in cash” (Schmitt and Worth 2012) funneled through Houthi-associated businessmen (see also Lederer 2019). Additionally, an increase in drone strikes in recent months using drones containing Iranian technologies and characteristics leads analysts to believe that Iranian material support is only growing more determined and significant (Brumfiel 2019). Analysts also believe that much of the smuggling is occurring across the Yemen-Oman border, though the Omani government also denies knowledge of or involvement in such smuggling (Bayoumi and Stewart 2016).
Iranian influence is also felt in less physical ways in the form of flourishing political ties between the Iranian government and Houthi leadership, whom the Iranian government has been courting in Tehran (Al-Qadhi 2017). Especially in recent years, the Iranian government has provided numerous opportunities for Houthi high school and middle school students, as well as scholars and leaders, to study in Iranian universities. This education strengthens cooperation and ties between the two entities, and has resulted in a further aligning of the Houthi’s Zaydist beliefs with the Twelver beliefs of the Iranian government.