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Manish Rai explains that Iran is grooming the Houthi movement in Yemen just as it groomed Hezbollah in Lebanon. If the Houthis don’t watch out, he warns, they will become full-out Iranian proxies, fulfilling Tehran’s agenda instead of their own.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Photo Credit: EPA

Houthis, members of a group known officially as “Ansar Allah,” are part of a Yemeni rebel group adherent to Zaidism, a branch of Shia Islam. Zaidi Imams ruled Yemen for 1,000 years until the 1962 revolution. The Houthi movement began in early 1990 as a cultural movement focused on countering Wahhabist and Salafist influence and ending the political and economic marginalization of Yemen’s Zaydi population. The movement turned to arms in 2004 on the grounds of self-defense when the first war with the government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh erupted and killed its founding leader, Hussein Al-Houthi.

What started as the theological movement preaching peace is now at the center of a wider regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Houthis, rather than acting as an indigenous movement, are now playing into the hand of Iran. Recently, Houthi rebels with greater Iranian assistance escalated their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. The Iranians are providing Houthis with a variety of rockets and missiles to arm them just like they did with their Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, which is the most powerful Arab Shiite force in the region. It’s very unfortunate that Houthis don’t realize that Iran is not interested in seeing Yemen in peace and prosperity. Iran is only helping them to create a proxy force in Arabian Peninsula.

Many analysts argue that Houthis are not organically linked to Iran as Hezbollah is. Even Hezbollah did not start in Lebanon as an organized Iranian proxy, the way they are functioning today. Hezbollah started as various groups stemming from different backgrounds: Amal, Palestinian factions, Daawa party, among others. With increased Iranian support and strategical planning, these groups eventually organized under the Party of God that is today Hezbollah and can best be described as an extension of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Iran’s approach in Yemen mirrors the strategy it has used to support Hezbollah. Iran has two arch-rivals in the region. The first is Israel and second is Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah is strategically positioned to confront Israel on its doorstep, and by strengthening Houthis in Yemen, Iran wishes to have its powerful proxy on Riyadh’s doorstep. By having Hezbollah and Houthis, Iran can at any time bleed its rivals in their home, and by engaging its rivals through its proxies, Iran can also avoid a direct confrontation. Moreover, for Iran, providing missile and other military support to the Houthis is a no-brainer as at very little cost it can put greater pressure on the Saudis and drain their resources.

At the beginning of current Yemeni conflict, Iran was not providing a substantial assistance to Houthis, but the Iranians have recently started pouring significant resources in Yemen. The Islamic Republic has provided the Houthis with various light-arms like AK-47s, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and Iranian copies of American and Russian antitank weapons. It has also equipped the Houthi insurgency with suicide boats and drones as well as roadside bombs, which are used by the Iranian proxy Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq. 

What has garnered the most publicity, however, is Iran’s role as a force multiplier for the Houthi missile capabilities. Given the fact that Yemen has no known history of producing its own ballistic missiles, let alone extended-range Scud versions, the emergence of the Qaher and Burkan missiles appears to support the claims made by the Saudi-led coalition and US officials that Iran is extensively involved.

In addition to this, the Houthis use a number of short-range Iranian missiles and rockets, most notably Borkan-1, Borkan-2, Qahir and Zelzal-2 missiles. None of these missiles were known to have existed in the Yemeni arsenal before the conflict. Iran is not just sending weapons, it is transferring the know-how in ballistic missiles to the Yemenis. Iran is also using Yemen as a testing ground for its missiles. The Iranian advisors who are helping the Houthis to operate various kinds of missiles system are basically testing their accuracy and efficiency as well as their performance against the missile defense systems that the United States has deployed in Saudi Arabia.

The greater Iranian support to Houthis is unsurprising. What is surprising is that the Houthi militias, which claim to be fighting to liberate Yemen and in name of Yemeni nationalism, have blindly chosen to take orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards even when these orders completely contradict their own agenda. Now, the Houthis are a mere tool in the hands of the regime in Tehran, which the Iranian regime uses can use at any time to serve its regional aspirations.

Iran has always taken advantage of the chaos in any country in which they created proxies like— Iraq, Lebanon and Syria— hence Iran will never let Yemen stabilize. Iran has an interest in keeping Yemen as a failed state so that they can control it through its proxy militia. The Houthis have to do some introspection and decide whether they are a real nationalist movement or mere an Iranian proxy.