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Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: A limited return on a modest investment

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Abstract

For years, mounting instability had led many to predict the imminent collapse of Yemen. These forecasts became reality in 2014 as the country spiralled into civil war. The conflict pits an alliance of the Houthis, a northern socio-political movement that had been fighting the central government since 2004, alongside troops loyal to a former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, against supporters and allies of the government overthrown by the Houthis in early 2015. The war became regionalized in March 2015 when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of ten mostly Arab states launched a campaign of air strikes against the Houthis. According to Saudi Arabia, the Houthis are an Iranian proxy; they therefore frame the war as an effort to counter Iranian influence. This article will argue, however, that the Houthis are not Iranian proxies; Tehran's influence in Yemen is marginal. Iran's support for the Houthis has increased in recent years, but it remains low and is far from enough to significantly impact the balance of internal forces in Yemen. Looking ahead, it is unlikely that Iran will emerge as an important player in Yemeni affairs. Iran's interests in Yemen are limited, while the constraints on its ability to project power in the country are unlikely to be lifted. Tehran saw with the rise of the Houthis a low cost opportunity to gain some leverage in Yemen. It is unwilling, however, to invest larger amounts of resources. There is, as a result, only limited potential for Iran to further penetrate Yemen.
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen:
a limited return on a modest investment
THOMAS JUNEAU
International Aairs 92:  () –
©
 The Author(s). International Aairs ©  The Royal Institute of International Aairs. Published by John Wiley & Sons
Ltd,  Garsington Road, Oxford  , UK and  Main Street, Malden, MA , USA.
For years, mounting instability led many to predict the imminent collapse of
Yemen. These forecasts became reality in late  as the country spiralled into
civil war. The conflict pits an alliance of the Houthis, a northern socio-political
movement that has been fighting against the central government since , along-
side troops and militias loyal to a former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, against
supporters and allies of the government overthrown by the Houthis in early .
The war became regionalized in March  when a coalition of ten mostly Arab
states, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a campaign of air strikes against the Houthis
with the declared objectives of stopping and rolling back their expansion and
reinstating the exiled government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi.
According to Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-backed Hadi government, the Houthis
are an Iranian proxy; they therefore frame the war as an eort to counter Iranian
influence in Yemen.
The Houthis, however, are not Iranian proxies; Tehran’s influence in Yemen is
marginal. The civil war in Yemen is driven first and foremost by local and political
factors, and is neither an international proxy war nor a sectarian confrontation. It
is primarily a domestic conflict, driven by local grievances and local competition
for power and resources. The Houthis and Saleh seek to overturn the political
order that emerged after the uprisings of : 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 aairs. In other words, the Houthis want in, Saleh
wants back in, and members of the Hadi-aligned bloc want to keep them out.
To provide background to the Iran–Houthi relationship, this article starts by
laying out the Islamic Republic’s modus operandi to explain why and how, and with
what expected results, it typically develops partnerships with non-state actors. It
goes on to provide background information on the situation in Yemen to clarify
the context in which the Houthis emerged as prospective partners of Iran. It then
shows that even though Iran’s support for the Houthis has increased in recent
See e.g. Christopher Boucek, Yemen: avoiding a downward spiral, Middle East Program paper no.  (Washing-
ton DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sept. ); Thomas Juneau, ‘Yemen: prospects for
state failure—implications and remedies’, Middle East Policy : , Fall , pp. –; Robert Worth, ‘Yemen
on the brink of hell’, New York Times,  July .
For a clear articulation of how Saudi Arabia frames Iranian regional policies, including in Yemen, see this
op-ed by its Foreign Minister: Adel al-Jubeir, ‘Can Iran change?’, New York Times,  Jan. .
Thomas Juneau
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International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
years, especially since , it remains limited—crucially, far too limited to have a
significant impact on the balance of internal forces in Yemen or to buy Iran more
than marginal influence there.
A number of factors explain why Iran’s current objectives and its potential
ambitions in Yemen are limited. Yemen does not rank high on the Islamic Repub-
lic’s list of foreign policy priorities. At the same time, Tehran realizes that Yemen
is a major source of concern for Saudi Arabia, and calculates that significant and
overt support for the Houthis would risk escalation into direct confrontation
with Saudi Arabia, an outcome Tehran wants to avoid. Tehran has thus come to
judge that while the provision of limited support can yield minor but interesting
returns, the costs of a major investment would outweigh the potential benefits.
Iran’s modus operandi in supporting non-state actors
Iran tends to intervene in national contexts characterized by two features: insta-
bility and the presence of dissatisfied actors. Typically, first, it seeks to take advan-
tage of instability. As in Iraq since  or in Lebanon since the s, Iran tries
to penetrate states where central authority is weak. It then tries to exploit divided
elites by supporting like-minded factions. It will often try to do so outside, but
parallel to, state structures, as in Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah, and in
Iraq, where it supports Shi’i militias. Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’i militias are not
fully under the state’s authority, and therefore undermine it. At the same time,
they participate in many of the state’s activities, for example by sitting in parlia-
ment, and even oppose other actors seeking to overthrow the state.
Within unstable or fragmented states, Iran often seeks to develop partner-
ships with dissatisfied groups. These are elements that reject or oppose, through
violent or non-violent means, the dominant domestic political order in their
country or the US-dominated regional order, or both. They are dissatisfied for a
variety of reasons, but essentially because they perceive—often rightly—that the
constituents they represent are marginalized by a dominant group. In Lebanon,
for example, Hezbollah was born in the s to better represent the interests of
the Shi’is, who had long been marginalized by the country’s Christian and Sunni
elite. Dissatisfied groups also often oppose regimes supported by the United States
or its regional allies, and repudiate foreign interference in their countries. As will
be discussed below, this is the case of the Houthis in Yemen. Such positions are
often popular, giving these groups a certain level of support. By extension, Iran
gains in soft power by aligning itself with them, allowing it to position itself as
the champion of the oppressed and marginalized.
Alex Vatanka, ‘Iran’s Yemen play: what Tehran wants—and what it doesn’t’, Foreign Aairs,  March ,
https://www.foreignaairs.com/articles/iran/--/irans-yemen-play. (Unless otherwise noted at point
of citation, all URLs cited in this article were accessible on  Feb. .)
The implication is that the strengthening of central authority would probably come at the expense of Iranian
influence, as it would close down space for external penetration.
On the anti-status-quo dimension of Iran’s foreign policy, see Shahram Chubin, ‘Iran’s strategic predicament’,
Middle East Journal : , Winter , pp. –.
Again, this implies that positive political developments can be detrimental to Iran as they remove the source
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen
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International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
Contrary to a widespread misperception, Iran does not choose its partners
on the basis of a common adherence to Shi’i Islam. To enjoy Iranian support,
actors must oppose the status quo, defined by the regional order dominated by
the United States and its local partners, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia; they
do not necessarily have to be Shi’i. That is why Hamas and Islamic Jihad—Sunni
nationalist groups opposed to Israel—have been Iran’s partners in the Palestinian
occupied territories. Iran even provides limited support to the Taliban, an extreme
Sunni group in Afghanistan with which it has been in conflict in the past, as will
be discussed below. A common opposition to the regional status quo is also the
main factor shaping Iran’s close relationship with its only state ally in the Middle
East, Syria, where the Assad regime is dominated by Alawites, a distant oshoot
of Shi’i Islam, but also includes other minorities and some Sunnis.
Iran pursues a range of objectives in choosing to support non-state actors. First,
it seeks to gain access to geographic areas that it can use as launching pads to
project its influence, to confront its main regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia,
and to oppose the regional US presence. In particular, Iran has improved its deter-
rent capability by forging ties with groups that could act against the United States
or its regional interests, or against Israel, in the event of a confrontation. A range
of militant groups in Iraq, in particular, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon and
Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian occupied territories, could retaliate following an
attack on Iran by Israel or America; this possibility severely constrains the latters
margin of manoeuvre, and while it does not rule out an attack by either on Iran,
it increases the costs of doing so.
Iran’s ties to non-state actors in a country also allow it to position itself as an
indispensable player with a say in major decisions. To this end, it often hedges its
bets by developing ties to many actors, providing them with shifting combina-
tions of political, military and financial support. It tries to identify future winners,
supporting a range of small groups with the expectation that at least some of them
will eventually emerge as important players. When Iran believes that a partner
is distancing itself, it may support the formation of splinter groups, encourag-
ing more like-minded factions to split from the main group and form their own
movements. Such smaller new groups are more dependent on Iran for external
support, and therefore more likely to act according to Iranian interests. When
Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq became an increasingly dicult partner, for example, Iran
started supporting breakaway factions from his movement. Two of them, Asa’ib
Ahl ul-Haqq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, emerged as particularly important, both for
Iran’s ability to shape Iraqi politics and as key actors in their own right in Iraq.
Both are smaller, and therefore more manageable, than the unwieldy Sadrist move-
ment, and more dependent on Iran. By its support, Iran seeks to position itself as
of dissatisfaction, the common interest with Iran. That is why Iran is often an actual or potential spoiler, as
progress would go against its interests.
On why Shi’ism is not the dominant factor driving Iran’s partnerships, see Sam Razavi, ‘Iran’s Levantine
ambitions’, in Thomas Juneau and Sam Razavi, eds, Iranian foreign policy since 2001: alone in the world (London:
Routledge, ), pp. –.
Mohsen Milani, ‘Why Tehran won’t abandon Assad(ism)’, Washington Quarterly: , Fall , pp. –.
Thomas Juneau
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International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
the arbiter of the political process in the target country. This has been particularly
evident in Iraq, where it has regularly performed a mediatory role in recent years.
Iran also aims to generate pressure points which it can subsequently use—or
at least ensure that others know it could use—to counter its rivals, especially the
United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. There have been reports, for example,
of small-scale Iranian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. This may seem
counter-intuitive, as Tehran and the Taliban have long had a hostile relationship
and almost went to war in . Iran, moreover, has no desire to see the Taliban
regain power in Kabul. But one of its overarching foreign policy priorities is to
counter US influence and increase the cost of the American presence in Afghani-
stan; and, because the Taliban are still powerful, Iran wants to keep channels of
communication open and gain insights into their workings and intentions.
Iran’s strategy also aims to safeguard its access to transit points it uses to deliver
material support to its partners. Syrian territory, in particular, plays a critical
role in allowing Iran to send support to Hezbollah, first by plane to Syria and
then overland to Lebanon. That is in part why the potential fall of Assad and
his replacement by a hostile regime would significantly hinder Iran’s ability to
support Hezbollah. Iran could perhaps try to shift to replenishing the Lebanese
group by sea, but this would be very dicult, given the likelihood of maritime
interdiction by Israeli or other international forces.
In other cases, Iran may be seeking not short-term benefits, which may indeed
be limited or even absent, but the establishment of a minimal footprint which
creates the option to ramp up its presence in the future. To some extent, this was
Iran’s approach to the Houthis prior to : its very limited ties to the movement
in previous years allowed it to increase its support at an opportune moment—
albeit only from marginal to still low levels.
Finally, there are some partners which Iran wants to see grow organically. In
many such cases—for example, those of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Asa’ib Ahl
ul-Haqq in Iraq—Iran played an active role in supporting the establishment of what
were initially small armed militias. In part thanks to Iran’s assistance, Hezbollah in
particular has steadily become an elite fighting force. At the same time, the Islamic
Republic also supported such groups in diversifying their activities beyond the mili-
tary sphere, helping them build political wings and elaborate networks to provide
social services. Iran then encouraged them to join the political process and become
fully fledged political actors. Their continued dependence on Iranian support thus
provides Iran with opportunities to shape politics in their home countries.
Mohammad Ali Shabani, Making sense of Iran’s Iraq policy, CARPO Brief no.  (Bonn: Centre for Applied
Research in Partnership with the Orient,  Jan. ), http://carpo-bonn.org/wp-content/uploads///
CARPO-Brief--Shabani-print-version.pdf.
 Margherita Stancati, ‘Iran backs Taliban with cash and arms’, Wall Street Journal,  June .
 Javid Ahmad, ‘The enemy of Iran’s enemy in Afghanistan: Tehran’s growing ties with the Taliban’, Foreign
Aairs,  June , https://www.foreignaairs.com/articles/afghanistan/--/enemy-irans-enemy-
afghanistan?cid=nlc-fatoday-&sp_mid=&sp_rid=dGhvbWFzanVuZWFGhvdGhaWw
uYtS.
 The growing Islamic State presence in Afghanistan could also be driving Iran and the Taliban to cooperate.
 Razavi, ‘Iran’s Levantine ambitions’.
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen
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International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
The rise of the Houthis
Central authority in contemporary Yemen has never been strong. The Yemen
Arab Republic (North Yemen), established in  in the wake of the overthrow
of the Zaydi imamate which had ruled parts of the area since , and the People’s
Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), created following the departure
of the British colonial power in , were both weak states. The Republic of
Yemen, born after unification in , has never had a monopoly on the use of
force on its territory.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, then an army major, became president of North Yemen in
 following the assassinations of his two predecessors. He led the country to
unification in  and ruled it until his forced resignation in . Saleh managed
the country’s aairs for  years by maintaining a precarious balance among a
range of competing forces, including the military and the security apparatus,
tribes, political parties and factions, clerics and businesspeople. By buying loyalty
through patronage and ruling through a combination of co-optation, inclusion
and coercion, Saleh built an ‘administrative feudal system’ that evolved into a
mix of ‘kleptocracy and plutocracy’.
Over the years, the authority of the central government has been opposed—
more or less violently—by many groups, including separatists in the south
and Al-aeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AAP), the global movement’s local
franchise. One group, the Houthis, emerged in the country’s north in the s
and has fought against the government on and o since . The Houthis
adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shi’i Islam. The vast majority of Shi’i Muslims
are known as Twelvers, as they recognize a line of twelve imams as the rightful
successors to the Prophet Muhammad. Zaydis, however, are known as Fivers, or
followers of the Fifth Imam. Zaydism is, in many aspects of its doctrine and
practice, closer to Sunni Islam than to other branches of Shi’i Islam. Located
almost exclusively in north-west Yemen, Zaydis represent – per cent of the
country’s population.
The Houthis’ grievances were originally primarily local and political. The
movement—now led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, brother of the first leader,
killed by Saleh’s troops in —initially sought an end to economic under-
development, political marginalization and discrimination in Zaydi areas. At this
point the Houthis wanted a greater say in national aairs, greater recognition of
Zaydi cultural and religious rights, and an end to proselytizing by Saudi-backed
 Laura Kasinof, ‘Yemen gets new leader as struggle ends calmly’, New York Times,  Feb. .
 Paul Dresch, A history of modern Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), p. .
 Robert Burrowes and Catherine Kasper, ‘The Salih regime and the need for a credible opposition’, Middle East
Journal : , Spring , n. .
 Ocially, their name is now Ansar Allah (supporters or partisans of God), though they are widely referred to
as the Houthis.
 James King, ‘Zaydis in a post-Zaydi Yemen: ‘ulema reactions to Zaydism’s marginalization in the Republic of
Yemen’, Shi’a Aairs Journal : , Winter , pp. –.
 Cameron Glenn, ‘Who are Yemen’s Houthis?’, Iran Primer,  April , http://iranprimer.usip.org/
blog//apr//who-are-yemens-houthis.
Thomas Juneau
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International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
Wahhabi institutes in Sa’ada province, their northern stronghold. The Houthis
do not seek independence, but they do want more autonomy in areas where they
are predominant. Even though some among them call for a return to the rule of
the Zaydi Imam and initially criticized the Saleh regime for being pro-US and
pro-Israel, their grievances were not primarily religious or international. Their
objectives have expanded as their power has increased, but most of their original
complaints still stand.
Tension between the Houthis and the central government steadily grew in the
s, with war breaking out in . Violence ebbed and flowed through six rounds
of fighting until . As the Houthis steadily grew in strength, they expanded
their support base and became well armed, both through access to a large black
market for weapons and by capturing equipment from the military. The brunt of
the fighting for the government eventually fell on the First Armoured Division,
led by Major-General Ali Mohsen. A kinsman of Saleh, he was for years the Presi-
dent’s closest ally and his right-hand man in the military. But as tension between
them grew in the s—especially over the President’s eorts to position his son
to succeed him—Saleh sent Ali Mohsen to fight the Houthis, in accordance with
his usual strategy of setting his rivals against one another to weaken them.
Though it began as a strictly Yemeni aair, the conflict witnessed a steady
increase in the involvement of regional powers. After fighting started in ,
Saleh regularly accused the Houthis of being Iranian proxies, presumably to attract
American and Saudi support. At the time, however, these accusations remained
unsubstantiated. In November , Saudi Arabia intervened militarily for the
first time, alarmed at instability on its southern flank and at the prospect—in its
perception—of an Iran-backed movement taking root in northern Yemen. Riyadh
attacked Houthi positions with artillery fire and fighter aircraft and imposed a
naval blockade on the north-western coast of Yemen to prevent weapons from
reaching the Houthis.
By , Saleh’s system of governance was under severe strain. Tension had been
mounting for years within the elite, especially between Saleh and Ali Mohsen but
also between Saleh and Islah, a party regrouping Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood,
tribal elements and business leaders. Islah had initially participated in the gover-
nance of unified Yemen after  in an alliance with Saleh, but friction grew
in the s. At the same time, actors outside the patronage networks centred
on Saleh—notably the Houthis, who were steadily strengthening their position
in the north—were also growing increasingly frustrated. It was in this volatile
context that popular protests spreading across the Arab world reached Yemen in
early , with millions taking to the streets to denounce corruption, economic
stagnation and Saleh’s suocating rule. Over the course of that year, many of
Saleh’s allies in the military and the security services, the bureaucracy and among
tribes—notably Ali Mohsen and most of Islah—defected to the opposition.
 Shelagh Weir, A clash of fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen, Middle East Report no.  (Washington DC:
Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), ).
 International Crisis Group, Yemen: defusing the Saada time bomb, Middle East Report no.  (Brussels: Belgium,
ICG, ).
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen
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International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
In November , Saleh agreed to leave the presidency in a deal brokered by
Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (the GCC, incorpo-
rating, alongside Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, atar and the United
Arab Emirates) and supported by the United States. Saleh, however, did not go
into exile nor did he abandon his ambitions. The deal instead guaranteed his
immunity from prosecution for any action he committed while in power and
allowed him to remain as head of his political party, the General People’s Congress
(GPC). He also retained the loyalty of many in the military, the security services
and the bureaucracy, and in tribal militias. The transition agreement called for
Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, the incumbent Vice-President, to take over as presi-
dent in February . It also called for the establishment of a national dialogue
to lay the groundwork for a new constitution of a democratic and federal state.
The Houthis initially took an active role in the  uprising, participating
in the street protests and coordinating with other opposition groups. They then
engaged in the national dialogue, often constructively, but remained reluctant
to commit themselves fully to the exercise, suspicious of the willingness of the
country’s Sana’a-based elite to undertake genuine reforms. At the same time, the
Houthis took advantage of the growing weakness of the central state after 
to consolidate their own power and better organize their military and political
wings.
Two aspects of the transition process were particularly problematic for the
Houthis. First, it did not fundamentally reform governance but merely perpetu-
ated the pre- system: while redistributing positions, it failed to dismantle
longstanding patronage structures and to integrate previously marginalized
actors. A more specific point of contention for the Houthis was the proposal
to transform the country into a federation of six regions. They agreed with the
concept of federalism, which they hoped would grant them more autonomy in
managing their own aairs; however, they vigorously opposed the six-region
proposal, seeing it (correctly) as a blatant attempt to weaken them by dividing
areas under their control between separate regions.
Taking advantage of the government’s paralysis and unpopularity, the Houthis
seized Sana’a in September . As they continued steadily to extend their
influence southwards, Hadi resigned on  January . After escaping from
Houthi-imposed house arrest, he fled on  February to the country’s southern
commercial hub, Aden, which he declared as the temporary capital and from where
he withdrew his resignation. The Houthis, however, continued their advance,
driving Hadi to flee in March to Saudi Arabia, and soon thereafter seized most
of Aden.
 Thomas Juneau, ‘Yemen and the Arab Spring’, in Mehran Kamrava, ed., Beyond the Arab Spring: the evolution of
the ruling bargain in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ), pp. –.
 Peter Salisbury, Federalism, conflict, and fragmentation in Yemen (London: Saferworld, Oct. ), http://www.
saferworld.org.uk/resources/view-resource/-federalism-conflict-and-fragmentation-in-yemen.
 April Longley Alley, ‘Yemen’s Houthi takeover’, Middle East Institute,  Dec. , http://www.mei.edu/
content/article/yemens-houthi-takeover.
 ‘Yemen crisis: President Hadi flees as Houthi rebels advance’, BBC News,  March , http://www.bbc.
com/news/world-middle-east-.
Thomas Juneau
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
As the Houthis expanded the areas under their full or partial control, it became
increasingly clear that their power grab had been made possible only by their
alliance with ex-President Saleh, their former enemy. Military units still loyal
to Saleh, in particular, allowed the Houthis to enter Sana’a in September 
largely unopposed. Countering this Houthi–Saleh bloc is an even more heteroge-
neous group comprised of Hadi loyalists, tribes opposed to the Houthis, southern
militias committed to autonomy or independence, and AAP. Importantly, most
of those fighting in this bloc—especially the southern militias—feel little loyalty
and much suspicion towards Hadi.
On  March , Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a coalition of
ten mostly Arab states to launch air strikes with the stated objectives of stopping
and rolling back the Houthis and reinstating Hadi. The United States backed
the coalition politically—albeit cautiously—and provided it with logistical and
intelligence support. The following three months witnessed the emergence of a
stalemate, as the Houthis for the most part stopped advancing but were not rolled
back, even though air strikes destroyed a significant proportion of their heavy
equipment. The tide turned in July and August, in large part because of growing
support for pro-Hadi forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including through
the deployment of several thousand Saudi and Emirati troops, and hundreds from
other coalition partners. Pro-Hadi forces took back Aden in July, and started
pushing north. Their progress was slow, however, in the face of spirited resistance
from the Houthi–Saleh bloc. The coalition managed to expel Houthi–Saleh forces
from five southern governorates, but failed to take Taiz, south-central Yemen’s
main city. The Houthis were overstretched in the deep south, making their defeat
in those areas probably inevitable. They are unlikely to be entirely defeated,
however, as they are deeply entrenched in the centre and, even more, in the north-
west. As a result, by February  the war had reached a stalemate, with neither
side strong enough to defeat the other decisively. There was, moreover, growing
insecurity in southern areas occupied by the pro-Hadi coalition, with both AAP
and Islamic State’s Yemen branch seizing the opportunity to expand their presence
in the country. The war had already killed more than , people, injured more
than , and exacerbated the country’s humanitarian crisis, with  per cent of
the population in need of assistance.
It is in this context that accusations of Iranian support for the Houthis have
intensified. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies, in particular, regularly accuse the
 Other participants in the campaign initially included Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan,
atar, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly, Oman was the only GCC country to refuse to
join the coalition. In doing so, Oman was probably seeking to position itself as a mediator, both within
Yemen and regionally between Iran and Saudi Arabia. See Roby Barrett, ‘Oman’s balancing act in the Yemen
conflict’, Middle East Institute,  June , http://www.mei.edu/content/at/oman%E%%s-balancing-
act-yemen-conflict.
 Hugh Naylor, ‘Yemen is turning into Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam’, Washington Post,  Nov. , https://
www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/saudi-arabia-cant-find-its-way-out-of-yemens-messy-
war////dce-e-e-bd-f_story.html.
 Adam Baron, ‘Power vacuum in Aden will fuel more unrest’, European Council on Foreign Relations,  Dec.
, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_power_vacuum_in_aden_will_fuel_more_unrest.
 ‘The three-way war in Yemen is not going well’, The Economist,  Dec. .
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen
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Houthis of being Iranian proxies and view their rise largely through the prism of
Saudi rivalry with the Islamic Republic. Adel al-Jubeir, for example, at that time
Saudi ambassador to the United States and now the country’s foreign minister,
said in March  that his government saw Iran ‘playing a large role in supporting
the Houthis’. Some American policy-makers make similar claims. Senator John
McCain claimed after Hadi’s forced resignation in January  that the Iranians
‘are on the march’, accusing the Obama administration of allowing Iran to take
over the Middle East. The same accusation is frequently voiced in the US media;
one article in Foreign Policy online, for example, argued that the Houthi take-over
of Sana’a in September  represented ‘a huge victory for Iran’. In Yemen,
Hadi has repeatedly accused the Houthis of being ‘puppets of the Iranian govern-
ment’. He has even attributed the chaos in Yemen to ‘Iran’s hunger for power and
its ambition to control the entire region’. These accusations have been given
fresh impetus by the oft-repeated claim by an obscure Iranian parliamentarian,
Alireza Zakani, that Sana’a has become the fourth Arab capital, after Baghdad,
Beirut and Damascus, to fall under Iran’s sway.
Iran’s support for the Houthis
There has been, over past decades and indeed centuries, very limited contact
between Iran and Zaydis in northern Yemen. For the most part, Iran stayed out of
the – Yemeni civil war, providing only limited support to the recently over-
thrown and pro-Saudi Zaydi imam, who was struggling against republican forces
backed by Egypt. After the republican side’s victory in the war, the new Yemen
Arab Republic maintained tense and minimal relations with monarchical Iran.
After the Iranian Revolution of –, small numbers of Zaydis started travelling
to Iran to study Shi’a Islam in om. Among them was the current leader of the
Houthis, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, along with his brother Hussein, the late founder
of the movement. According to some reports, their sojourn in Iran had some eect
in shaping their outlook on politics. Yet despite these occasional contacts, until
recently Yemen was simply not on the Islamic Republic’s list of foreign policy
priorities, and there is no evidence that Iran provided the Houthis with any support
prior to the outbreak of war in . It was only after this point that Iran and the
Houthis engaged in more sustained contacts, with Tehran eventually starting to
 Danya Greenfield and Owen Daniels, ‘Reading Saudi tea leaves in Yemen’, Atlantic Council,  Dec. ,
http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/reading-saudi-tea-leaves-in-yemen.
 uoted in Warren Strobell and Mark Hosenball, ‘Elite Iranian guards training Yemen’s Houthis: US o-
cials’, Reuters,  March , http://www.reuters.com/article////us-yemen-security-houthis-iran-
idUSKBNMNMI.
 ‘Face the nation’, CBS News,  Jan. , http://www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcripts-
january---mcdonough-mccain-feinstein/.
 Amal Mudallali, ‘The Iranian sphere of influence expands into Yemen’, Foreign Policy,  Oct. , http://
foreignpolicy.com////the-iranian-sphere-of-influence-expands-into-yemen/.
 Hadi has repeated this claim on many occasions; most visibly, see ‘Yemen’s President: the Houthis must be
stopped’, New York Times,  April .
 John Xenakis, ‘Iran brags that Sana’a is the fourth Arab capital they control’, National Yemen,  Sept. ,
http://nationalyemen.com////iran-brags-that-sanaa-is-the-fourth-arab-capital-they-control/.
 Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, ‘Diary in Sanaa’, London Review of Books : , May , pp. –.
Thomas Juneau
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
provide them with very limited amounts of military, financial and political
support. As will be explained below, while the level of Iranian assistance further
increased after , there is still no indication that it has reached significant levels.
For many years, former President Saleh had regularly accused Tehran of
supporting the Houthis. Yet Saleh never provided definitive proof in support
of his claims. In fact, cables revealed by Wikileaks suggest that the American
Embassy in Sana’a was initially sceptical about these accusations. One leaked
memo from , for example, argues that the Yemeni government ‘has yet to
produce evidence that Iranians were smuggling arms to the Houthis’. According
to another memo, ‘most analysts report that the Houthis obtain their weapons
from the Yemeni black market and even from the ROYG [Republic of Yemen
government] military itself ’ by buying them from corrupt commanders and
soldiers; it added that ‘the military covers up its failures by saying the weapons
come from Iran. US ocials, in fact, were at the time more concerned that
growing American military assistance destined for the fight against AAP was
being diverted by Saleh for his own struggle against the Houthis.
According to an April  report to the UN Security Council’s Iran Sanctions
Committee, Iran started shipping small amounts of weapons to the Houthis
in  (though the report left open the possibility that there might have been
even more limited support before). It identified a pattern of arms shipments by
sea and detailed seven possible incidents of such deliveries. In one case, in April
, an Iranian vessel transferred crates of weapons to Yemeni boats in interna-
tional waters; in another, in February , an Iranian fishing vessel was seized
by Yemeni authorities and found to be carrying  Iranian-made anti-tank and
anti-helicopter rockets.
It appears that Iran’s support for the Houthis increased after . American
ocials, hitherto dismissive of Yemeni accusations of Iranian support for the
Houthis, started to acknowledge that Iran was probably providing very limited
assistance, including small numbers of automatic rifles and grenade launchers,
bomb-making material and several million dollars in cash. Iran’s Arabic-language
television channel, Al-Alam, also started broadcasting a daily programme on
Yemen, which gained some popularity in the country because of its criticism of
Saleh and of American policies. If these reports are accurate, they are indicative of
 Andrew Terrill, ‘Iranian involvement in Yemen’, Orbis : , Summer , pp. –.
 ‘Sa’ada conflict: a proxy war of words between Iran, Saudi Arabia’, US Embassy in Sana’a cable,  Sept. ,
released by Wikileaks.
 ‘Saudi strikes in Yemen: an invitation to Iran’, US Embassy in Sana’a cable,  Nov. , released by Wikileaks.
 ‘Who are the Houthis, part two: how are they fighting?’, US Embassy in Sana’a cable,  Dec. , released
by Wikileaks.
 Juliane von Mittelstaedt, ‘Operation Scorched Earth: a US hand in Yemen’s civil war’, Der Spiegel,  Dec.
, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/operation-scorched-earth-a-us-hand-in-yemen-s-civil-war-
a-.html.
 Carole Landry, ‘Iran arming Yemen’s Houthi rebels since : UN report’, Middle East Eye,  May ,
http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iran-arming-yemens-huthi-rebels--un-report-.
 Terrill, ‘Iranian involvement in Yemen’.
 Eric Schmitt and Robert Worth, ‘With arms for Yemen rebels, Iran seeks wider Mideast role’, New York
Times,  March , http://www.nytimes.com////world/middleeast/aiding-yemen-rebels-iran-
seeks-wider-mideast-role.html.
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
an Iranian desire to develop its partnership with the Houthis. Support on this scale,
however, was far too limited to make an impact on the internal balance of forces
in Yemen. From Tehran’s perspective, in line with its usual approach to providing
support to non-state actors, this was not an eort to gain short-term influence. It
was, rather, an indication of an intention to open channels of communication and
build trust, creating the opportunity to upgrade relations in the future.
The interception in January  of the Jihan I, an Iranian vessel, in Yemeni territo-
rial waters in a joint operation by the US Navy and the Yemeni coastguard provided
further indication of the emerging relationship between Iran and the Houthis. A
report by a UN panel of experts concluded, albeit with some doubts, that the weap-
ons on board came from Iran and were destined for the Houthis. According to the
panel, the ‘seized items consisted of ammunition, weapons and other military and
non-military items and materials, including man-portable air defence systems, 
mm rockets, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, C- plastic explosive blocks and
electrical equipment that can be used to manufacture improvised explosive devices.
Another ship carrying a similar load was intercepted in March .
The chain of events starting in September  with the Houthi take-over of
Sana’a apparently led Iran to raise its support further. There have been numerous
media reports since mid-, in particular, quoting US and western ocials
recognizing an increased level of Iranian assistance to the Houthis. Media reports
have, for example, quoted US intelligence ocials stating that units from Iran’s
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were ‘training and equipping’ Houthi
troops, though insisting that such support remained limited and was not decisive.
According to these reports, IRGC advisers in Yemen may amount to dozens or
hundreds (though the higher end of the range seems excessive). In addition,
Houthi fighters have reportedly travelled to Iran and Lebanon for training, with
Hezbollah playing a key facilitation role.
There have also been reports of denser patterns of shipping activity between
Iran and Yemen since the first months of . A Financial Times article, in partic-
ular, claimed that at least four large cargo ships made ‘a series of highly unusual
and undeclared trips between Iran and Yemeni ports controlled by the Houthis.
During their voyages between Bandar Abbas in Iran and Hodeida, a Yemeni port
on the Red Sea, the ships ‘changed their ensigns, turned o their tracking devices
at key points, registered false information in international shipping logs and met
unidentified crafts mid-ocean.
Around this time Iran also began to be more open about its role in Yemen.
President Hassan Rouhani, for example, described the Houthi take-over of Sana’a
 UN sanctions committee panel of experts report,  June , http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.
asp?symbol=S//.
 Strobell and Hosenball, ‘Elite Iranian guards training Yemen’s Houthis’.
 Yara Bayoumy and Mohammed Ghobari, ‘Confirmed: Iran’s foreign military arm is backing Yemeni rebels
who took control of the country’, Reuters,  Dec. , http://www.businessinsider.com/r-iranian-support-
seen-crucial-for-yemens-houthis--?IR=T.
 Strobell and Hosenball, ‘Elite Iranian guards training Yemen’s Houthis’.
 Sam Jones and Simeon Kerr, ‘Mystery deepens over Iranian cargo ships en route to Yemen’, Financial Times,
 May , http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s//ec-d-e-dd-feabdc.html.
Thomas Juneau

International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
in  as a ‘brilliant and resounding victory’, a comment an Iranian ocial would
have been unlikely to make in the past. Then, in February , Iran’s deputy
Foreign Minister publicly pledged political support for the Houthis and for
Yemeni unity, and described the Houthis as having ‘taken major steps to restore
domestic peace and stability’. Soon after, in March, a delegation of Houthi
ocials returning from Tehran announced that Iran had promised to provide
Yemen with a package of economic support, including help to expand Yemeni
ports and build power plants, and one year’s worth of oil supplies. Iran and
the Houthis also announced in March  the establishment of two daily flights
between Tehran and Sana’a. Yet soon thereafter the diculty of actually imple-
menting pledges of cooperation was vividly illustrated when Sana’a airport was
shut down because of the war, preventing the flights from being introduced. Iran
has, however, consistently denied providing the Houthis with weapons. On 
March , for example, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Aham said
that ‘the claims about the dispatch of weapons from the Islamic Republic of Iran
to Yemen are completely fabricated and sheer lies’.
As this overview of Iran’s ties to the Houthis shows, there is limited hard
evidence that Tehran has provided them with material support. Nevertheless, the
accumulation of anecdotal reports and circumstantial evidence, in combination
with the work of the UN panel of experts, does support the assessment that Iran
started providing the Houthis with very limited amounts of military and financial
support some time in  and has probably increased this assistance in recent years,
especially after . Yet whatever the precise nature of Iran’s budding relation-
ship with the Houthis, by all indications its support remains limited and unlikely
to buy Iran more than marginal influence. There is no evidence, in particular,
suggesting that the Houthis have become dependent on Iranian assistance, or in
any way fallen under Tehran’s authority.
Why Iran provides only limited support for the Houthis
There are important factors that constrain Iran’s ability to increase its involvement
in Yemen and explain why its support for the Houthis remains relatively low, even
though it has increased steadily over the years, especially since mid-. First,
high levels of instability in Yemen imply that a major commitment of resources
 ‘Iranian President: recent events in Yemen are part of the brilliant and resounding victory’, Aden Al-Ghad (in
Arabic),  Sept. , http://adenghad.net/news//.VZSA_bKM-.
 ‘Iran reiterates support for restoration of political tranquility to Yemen’, Fars News,  Feb. , http://
english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=.
 ‘Houthis say they have secured aid package from Iran’, Al Jazeera,  March , http://www.aljazeera.com/
news///houthis-secured-aid-package-iran-.html.
 ‘First Iran flight lands in Shiite-held Yemen capital’, Al Arabiya,  March , http://english.alarabiya.net/
en/News/middle-east////First-Iran-flight-lands-in-Shiite-held-Yemen-capital-.html.
 ‘Iran brushes o claims of arms flow to Yemen’, Press TV,  March , http://.../
Detail/////Iran-rejects-claims-of-arms-flow-to-Yemen.
 See e.g. Gregory Viscusi, Patrick Donahue and John Walcott, ‘Saudi claims on Iran’s role in Yemen face
skepticism in West’, Bloomberg,  April , www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/--/u-s-europe-
back-saudis-in-yemen-while-skeptical-of-iran-role.
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would be required for Iran to gain the ability to shape events more than margin-
ally. Second, Iran’s interests in Yemen are limited: the country is not a priority for
the Islamic Republic in the same way that Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are. Third, for
Iran to become strongly involved in Yemen would raise a high risk of overstretch,
given its investments elsewhere, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Finally,
Iran recognizes that Yemen is a major priority for Saudi Arabia; in consequence,
stronger and more overt Iranian involvement would risk an uncontrolled escala-
tion of tensions with Riyadh, an outcome Tehran wants to avoid. In sum, the costs
of greater involvement would most likely outweigh the limited benefits.
Despite these constraints, Tehran has come to assess that a limited investment
could bring minor but interesting returns. This has been enabled by key develop-
ments. First, increasing disorder in Yemen has led to a greater opening for involve-
ment by external actors, including Iran. Second, the growing dissatisfaction of the
Houthis with the political order in Yemen has made them an increasingly attrac-
tive partner for the Islamic Republic. The Houthis believe that the Sana’a-based
elite has long excluded them and has no interest in giving them a greater say in the
state’s aairs. In their view, the  transition agreement that led to Hadi’s acces-
sion to the presidency merely reshued the balance of power among the elite,
without oering genuine prospects of integration for marginalized actors such as
themselves. Furthermore, this domestic order is backed by Saudi Arabia and the
United States, Iran’s main rivals.
It is these common anti-status quo interests that are bringing the Houthis and
Iran together, not a shared Shi’i faith. Many, including in the western media,
label the Houthis as ‘Shi’i’, implicitly or explicitly arguing that this explains
their partnership with Iran. This is not, in a narrow sense, inaccurate, but it is
misleading. As mentioned above, their Shi’i commonality is limited as the Houthis
are not Twelver Shi’is but Zaydis. The Zaydis, moreover, are not monolithically
united behind the Houthis. During the six rounds of fighting between  and
, for example, some Zaydi tribal militias fought alongside the government
against the Houthis, while many government ocials and troops—including
Saleh—are Zaydi. Similarly, when the Houthis approached Sana’a in , they
faced resistance from some Zaydi tribes.
The Yemeni conflict is therefore first and foremost about access to power and
the spoils of conflict. It is at its root a civil war, driven by local competition for
power, and not a regional, sectarian or proxy war. The Iran–Saudi Arabia rivalry
has superimposed itself over this domestic conflict and has inflamed it, but it does
not drive it. Iran opposes the existing order in the Middle East, dominated by the
United States and its regional partners. This pushes it towards alignment with the
 See e.g. Ian Black, ‘Saudis strike in response to Houthi Scud attack as forgotten war rages on’, Guardian,
 Oct. , http://www.theguardian.com/world//oct//saudi-arabia-strike-response-houthi-scud-
attack-forgotten-war.
 Charles Schmitz, ‘Yemen’s Ansar Allah: causes and eects of its pursuit of power’, Middle East Institute, 
Feb. , http://www.mei.edu/content/at/yemens-ansar-allah-causes-and-eects-its-pursuit-power.
 For a similar analysis, see Adam Baron, ‘Unraveling Yemen’s civil war’, Cairo Review of Global Aairs,  Nov. .
 James Brandon and Nicholas Heras, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention: a high-risk gamble?’, Terrorism Moni-
tor : ,  Oct. .
Thomas Juneau

International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
Houthis, who also oppose the status quo. At the same time, one rationale behind
the Saudi campaign has been to protect the post- status quo and the elites that
dominated it. Saudi interests were threatened by the rise of the Houthis, who
defeated Saudi allies, notably Islah and Ali Mohsen. The Saudi intervention can
therefore be seen through the prism of Riyadh’s eorts to restore the balance of
power in Yemen in favour of the status quo forces with which it is aligned.
It is also useful to view the Houthi–Saleh alliance through the prism of dissat-
isfaction with the status quo. Since  the two parties have found common
ground, despite their past animosity. Both now oppose the post- domestic
order, initially dominated by the Saudi-backed Islah party and Ali Mohsen. Saleh
has been marginalized; he wants to reclaim his former place at the top of the
country’s political structure and position his son as the next president. He also
holds a deep grudge against Islah and Ali Mohsen, viewing them as responsible for
his losing the presidency. A common opposition to Ali Mohsen and Islah—with
which the Houthis have a hostile relationship—has thus brought the Houthis and
Saleh together since . At the same time, Islah has been over the decades one of
the main vehicles for Saudi influence in Yemen. There is, in sum, a convergence of
interest between the Houthis, Saleh and Iran in opposing, directly or indirectly,
the Islah–Ali Mohsen–Saudi Arabia axis.
It would be inaccurate to conclude that after years of being accused of support-
ing the Houthis, Tehran was dragged, against its will, into backing a new partner
in Yemen. A multitude of drivers steadily pushed Iran to increase its support to
the Houthis, albeit only to modest levels. Nevertheless, a dynamic of self-fulfilling
prophecy can be included as one of the factors explaining the evolving relationship
between Iran and the Houthis. As the then American Ambassador to Yemen wrote
in : ‘We can think of few ways to more eectively encourage Iranian meddling
in the Houthi rebellion than to have all of Yemens Sunni neighbours line up to
finance and outfit’ Salehs most recent campaign against the Houthis. This did
contribute to pushing the Houthis to seek external support—which they originally
neither needed nor sought—and to obtain it from the only feasible source, Iran.
The Saudi-led strikes launched in March  intensified these pre-existing
dynamics. Paradoxically, one of Riyadh’s objectives was to diminish Tehran’s
influence in Yemen, but the intervention is instead resulting in a growing Iranian
presence. Saudi Arabia’s fears of growing Iranian regional influence are widely exag-
gerated: Iran is not a rising regional hegemon, but rather a middle-sized regional
power with limited sway in Yemen. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s eorts to push
back Iranian influence are inviting counter-responses from Tehran. External attack
is indeed pushing the Houthis to seek Iranian support: as a relatively small non-state
actor attacked by a regional power with deep pockets and advanced weaponry, it is
unsurprising that the Houthis should seek additional external assistance; and only
Iran is willing and able to provide some.
 ‘Saudi strikes in Yemen: an invitation to Iran’, US Embassy in Sana’a cable,  Nov. , released by Wikileaks.
 Thomas Juneau, Iran’s failed foreign policy: dealing from a position of weakness, Middle East Institute policy paper
-, April , http://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Juneau%Iran.pdf.
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen

International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
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2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
What is Iran achieving?
Iran’s limited support for the Houthis has brought limited gains in terms of influ-
ence on the ground. Tehran has made a small investment in Yemen, in other
words, which has allowed it to reap no more than a small return.
Iran has not acquired the ability to shape events in Yemen. The conclusion
that because Iran has increased its support for the Houthis, then necessarily Houthi
successes must be attributable to Tehran’s enhanced backing would be erroneous;
there is a correlation, but not a causal link. First, Iran’s support has gone from
nothing to modest. There is no indication that Iran’s assistance has had more than
a marginal impact on the internal balance of forces in Yemen; it is far from a
game-changer. Nor is there any evidence that Iran has developed any measure
of command and control over the Houthis. There are even indications that it
does not have influence over important Houthi decisions: for example, according
to media reports, Iran encouraged the Houthis earlier in  not to seize Sana’a,
but its advice was ignored. This assessment is supported by frequent statements
by the Obama administration emphasizing its view ‘that Iran does not exercise
command and control over the Houthis’.
It is also important to distinguish between Tehran’s support for the Houthis
and what has been a favourable turn of events for Iran. The marginalization of
pro-Saudi actors in Yemen—especially Ali Mohsen and Islah—is a positive devel-
opment from Tehran’s point of view. In the regional balance of power, losses
for Saudi Arabia represent gains for Iran, as Tehran benefits from Riyadh’s being
bogged down in a dicult and costly conflict while insecurity spreads in its soft
underbelly. Also, Syria and Iraq represent far greater preoccupations for Iran,
and so seeing Saudi Arabia’s attention pulled away from those two countries and
towards Yemen, even if only partly, represents a modest gain.
Even though these favourable events in Yemen are not of its making, it is
normal that Iran should seek to entrench and consolidate new trends that have led
to a decrease in the influence of its Saudi rival. In this sense, Iran’s support for the
Houthis is more reactive than proactive. That is, as it saw a rival of Saudi Arabia,
the Houthis, rise and Riyadh experiencing diculties, Iran, to some extent,
bandwagoned on Houthi successes. It did not cause them, but decided to play its
part to entrench them.
It is also essential to situate Iran’s support for the Houthis in the broader
context of its regional policy. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the nuclear issue and relations
with the United States are much more important for Iran; in those areas, it is
willing to invest significant resources and to tolerate a higher level of risk. But
Iran realizes that, by contrast, the situation in Yemen represents a major priority
for Saudi Arabia. By leading a broad coalition to confront the Houthis, Saudi
 William Rugh, ‘Problems in Yemen, domestic and foreign’, Middle East Policy : , Winter , p. .
 Ali Watkins, Ryan Grim and Akbar Shahid Ahmed, ‘Iran warned Houthis against Yemen takeover’, Hungton
Post,  April , http://www.hungtonpost.com////iran-houthis-yemen_n_.html?utm_
hp_ref=tw.
 The quotation is from Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, in Watkins et
al., ‘Iran warned Houthis’.
Thomas Juneau

International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
Copyright ©
2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
Arabia wants to demonstrate—to the region as a whole, to the United States,
and specifically to Iran—that it is the dominant power on the Arabian peninsula.
Riyadh wants to send the message to Iran that under King Salman, who acceded
to the throne in early , it intends to play an active role in managing regional
security. For Iran to gain significant influence in Yemen and for the Houthis to
become more responsive to its requests, the Islamic Republic would need to inject
massive resources; it has neither the ambition nor the will to do so. In sum, so far
as the Saudi Arabia–Iran rivalry is concerned, the balance of interests in Yemen is
heavily skewed in favour of Riyadh.
Iran’s involvement in Yemen, moreover, pales in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s.
Whatever the precise amount of support Iran has given the Houthis, it repre-
sents a fraction of what Saudi Arabia has provided, over the years, to its preferred
factions, whether in the government, the armed forces, the bureaucracy, the
security services or non-state entities such as Wahhabi institutions and tribal
militias. Saudi Arabia more recently also reportedly began funding tribal militias
opposed to the Houthis, notably in central Ma’rib Province. More broadly,
Saudi financial support—to the tune of at least $ billion since —has been
essential to keep Yemen’s economy afloat after the instability caused by the 
uprising. Remittances from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia also play a major
role in Yemen’s economy: in recent years, one million Yemenis have sent back
about $ billion in annual remittances.
The provision of aid on this scale is normal: Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s soft under-
belly, and instability on this southern flank represents an important threat to
Saudi security. This is far from the case for Iran. In sum, what happens in Yemen
concerns Saudi Arabia’s vital interests, but not Iran’s; for Iran, Yemen represents
opportunities, not threats. The Houthis are as a result much less dependent on
Iranian support than pro-Saudi factions, including Hadi and his allies, are on Saudi
support. Without Iranian assistance, the Houthis would remain a dominant actor;
without Saudi support, Hadi would be significantly weaker.
Concluding remarks
Iran has limited interests in Yemen, its presence has a marginal impact on the
domestic balance of power, and its support is puny compared to the resources
Saudi Arabia has poured into the country. Yemen is, quite simply, much less of a
priority for Iran than it is for Saudi Arabia. Tehran understands that its interests
are limited and that enhanced investment would be unlikely to generate important
gains, and could on the contrary lead to important losses. In this context, Tehran’s
 David Ottaway, Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni quagmire (Washington DC: Wilson Center,  Dec. ), https://www.
wilsoncenter.org/publication/saudi-arabias-yemeni-quagmire.
 Adam Baron, ‘Civil war in Yemen: imminent and avoidable’, European Council on Foreign Relations, March
, http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/civil_war_in_yemen_imminent_and_avoidable.
 ‘Yemen faces economic crisis as Saudi mulls pulling the plug’, IRIN,  Dec. , http://www.irinnews.org/
report//yemen-faces-economic-crisis-as-saudi-mulls-pulling-plug.
 Mohammed Alyahya, ‘Why did Saudi Arabia intervene in Yemen?’, Al-Monitor,  June , http://www.
al-monitor.com/pulse/originals///yemen-saudi-arabia-iran-houthis-support-military.html.
Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen

International Aairs 92: 3, 2016
Copyright ©
2016 The Author(s). International Aairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Aairs.
influence in Yemen is limited, and heavily constrained; any modest support it
provides the Houthis is far from a game-changer, while the Houthis are neither a
proxy nor a pawn of Tehran.
Looking ahead, it will remain highly unlikely that Iran will emerge as an impor-
tant player in Yemeni aairs. Iran’s fundamental interests are relatively stable, and
the constraints on its ability to project power in Yemen are unlikely to be lifted.
Tehran saw with the rise of the Houthis an opportunity to gain some leverage in
Yemen at relatively low cost. It is and will remain unwilling to invest much larger
amounts of resources. There is, as a result, only a limited potential space for Iran
to penetrate Yemen further in the years ahead.
... Many human rights organizations have the targeting of civilians by Saudi airstrikes, including the Human Rights Watch which as reported that there are at least over 90 unlawful airstrikes that targeted "Yemeni fishing boats, mosques, factories and detention centers" (World Report, 2020). The conflict is expected to polarize the society further and push the Houthis towards seeking patronage from Iran if the Saudi-led intervention continues for a longer period of time (Darwich, 2018;Juneau, 2016). Model to diagnose the Saudi-led intervention by looking at various socioeconomic factors that contributed to the turnover of events in Yemen. ...
... First, the claims that Iran has significantly supported the Houthis to impact the conflict dynamics on the ground have not been supported by evidence. While Iran's government limitedly invested in the Houthis and the conflict in Yemen, their support was not sufficient to change the conflict dynamics (Juneau, 2016). There are various factors for the limited Iranian intervention in Yemen. ...
... There are various factors for the limited Iranian intervention in Yemen. First, Iran does not have a great interest in Yemen due to Iran's consideration of Yemen as a remote regional country (Juneau, 2016). Second, Iran has been dramatically distracted by regional proxy struggles in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, that intervening in Yemen was not considered a priority in the Iranian foreign policies (Vatanka, 2020). ...
Thesis
Full-text available
Scholars have examined the drivers of the Yemeni conflict through various lenses, including sectarianism, state weakness, regional rivalries, and elite competition. This study employs the Transnational Conflict Framework (TNC) and the Intervention-Reconstruction-Withdrawal model (IRW) to analyze the conflict dynamics and study the impact of the Saudi-led intervention. It utilizes various peer-reviewed journal articles, books, archival documents, reports, and news articles to analyze the conflict, its dynamics, and prospect resolution. This analysis reveals that the conflict is rooted in different global, regional, local, identity, and individual drivers that have prevented a successful intervention toward conflict mitigation. The failure of the Saudi-led intervention is primarily due to unstable alliances, the unwavering external support to the Houthis, and the growing contradictions between the main interveners (i.e., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). This research suggests that a proper conflict resolution plan for Yemen needs to entrust a more significant role to local actors to lead the negotiations and devise agreements while being incentivized by external reward packages. It also suggests that further research should be conducted that advances bottom-up and culturally-sensitive conflict resolution frameworks.
... In the middle of the 1980s, because of this connection, the Houthism activities focused on organising religious courses in mosques of Sa'adah and teaching within the framework of the Zaydism doctrine, especially the Hashemite families. Later, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Houthism established an entity called the Believing Youth Forum (BYF), which was to spread the Houthism thoughts nationwide by building centres, which sought more than 15,000 followers (Albloshi 2016; Freeman 2009& Juneau 2016. ...
... General Abdul Reza Shahlai, director of the Iranian Qods Force for External Operations, a branch of the IRGC, is the most prominent of those advisers who are still advising the Houthis inside Yemen. The IRGC aimed to prepare Houthis to become, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, a pawn in Iran's regional game as a guarantor of its access to the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Southern Red Sea region (Juneau 2016, Knights, Ingram, Whiteside, & Winter 2020Vatanka 2020& Zweiri 2016. As proof of IRGC's support for the Houthis, in early 2013, Yemeni coast guards caught a Panamanian flag-operated vessel carrying small arms and ammunition, 122 mm rockets, C4 explosives, bomb-making equipment to assemble IEDs, and night vision goggles made in Iran. ...
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This article examines the religious-political ideology of the Houthi movement in Yemen. In particular, it explores the political objectives and historical roots of the Houthis' rebellion that was initiated in 2004 and continued into 2009 through six rounds of wars, which were called Sa'dah wars. The Houthis implemented a military coup in 2014 against Mansour Hadi's government and seized state institutions which led to Yemen's current civil war. A catastrophic battle also erupted when the Saudi-led military coalition decided to intervene in the conflict in 2015, with the aim of restoring the legitimacy of the previous regime as well as defeating the Houthis insurgency. Despite numerous studies on the issues relating to civil war in Yemen, there is no adequate study on the perspective of Houthis' religious-political ideology. This research is qualitative using in-depth interviews with seven experts and observers of the Yemeni war. This article analyses major reasons for the historical rebellion and the ongoing catastrophic war in Yemen, based on the Houthis' religious-political ideology. The findings of this article inform that the current conflict in Yemen is rooted in historical circumstances which gave rise to a heavy responsibility or burden on the Houthis, whereby according to the theory of the divine right to rule, the Houthis and their ancestors, the Hashemites claim the monopoly of regional (present day Yemen) power. Thus, this theory has been considered as one of the key dynamics of the outbreak and the continuation of the current war in Yemen. It is very likely that the trend of increased Houthis' rebellion will continue for the next few years in Yemen due to the movement's firm aim of power struggle, based on their religious-political ideology of the 'divine right to rule'.
... Shortly after that, a deputation of Houthis returning from Teheran in March declared the approval of Iran to supply Yemen with a package of economic support, including assistance for the expansion of Yemeni harbors and the development of power generation stations, and a one-year supply of oil. In March 2015, the establishment of two daily flights between Tehran and Sana'a was also declared by Iran and the Houthis (Juneau, 2016). It is also important to state here that Iran is the only country that officially approved the legitimacy of the Houthi coup, despite its official denial of supporting them, by reopening the embassy and assigning an ambassador in Sana'a. ...
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The Yemeni conflict is complicated due to the numerous internal crises and disputes in the country. In addition, the external correlations and their linkages to the internal actors have increased the intensity of the conflict. There is a need to identify these internal and external actors and analyze their role, impact, strengths, and weaknesses. This study identifies the internal and external actors of the conflict in Yemen, then examines their roles and impact and shows that the conflict resulted from internal conflicts between local actors and took on different dimensions through regional and international interventions. The political, ideological, and self-interest differences are the causes of the disunity among the elites and the political and military forces, and in turn, they led to the exacerbation of the conflict and the negative role in peacemaking. Keywords: Houthi; Legitimacy; Southern Movement; Tribal; Yemen Conflict.
... Iran has been advancing its security interests and frustrating its adversaries in the region through proxies for decades, and currently benefits from linkages to a vast array of proxy groups throughout the greater Middle East. These regional proxies include groups in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan which oppose the regional order led by the U.S. 465 Figure 10.1, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is an excellent visual depiction of the current status of Iran's regional designs for these proxies. Through this proxy network, Iran seeks to create an Islamic resistance to pressure Western power and influence out of the region, ensuring the Iranian regime's survival and expanding its regional power. ...
... Between the period of 2015-2019, KSA spent at least $265 billion on the conflict (Jalal, 2020). While Iranian involvement was minimal in the early days (Hokayem & Roberts, 2016;Juneau, 2016), constant state-led Saudi fearmongering, guided by a fear of Iranian encirclement, meant that Tehran's involvement became a self-fulfilling prophecy (Phillips, 2018). Iran saw the benefit of increasing its connection with the Houthi movement, as a way of weakening the Saudis. ...
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