Houthis: Iran’s New Hezbollah in Making

Manish Rai,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Manish Rai
Manish Rai is a columnist specializing on the Middle East and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround. He has reported from Jordon, Iran, Qatar and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in House of Commons, British Parliament.He can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com.

Houthis officially “Ansar Allah” are a Yemeni rebel group adherent to Zaidism a branch of Shia Islam. Zaidi Imams ruled Yemen for 1,000 years until the 1962 revolution. Houthi movement in early 1990 began as a cultural movement intended to counter Wahhabist and Salafist influence and end the political and economic marginalization of Yemen’s Zaydi population. The movement turned to arms in year 2004 on grounds of self-defence when the first war with the government of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh erupted which killed its founding leader Hussein Al-Houthi. What started as the theological movement preaching peace now find themselves at the centre of a wider regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Houthis rather than acting as an indigenous movement are now playing in the hand of Iran. Recently Houthi rebels with greater Iranian assistance have escalated their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran is providing Houthis with variety of rockets and missiles to develop them in comparison to its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah which is the most powerful Arab Shiite force in the region. Its very unfortunate that Houthis don’t realise that Iran is not interested in seeing Yemen in peace and prosperity. Iran is only helping them just to create its 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 Iranian increased support and strategical planning, these groups eventually organized under the Party of God that is today Hezbollah which can now best be described as extension of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran approach in Yemen mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Iran has two arch rivals in the region first is Israel and second is Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah is strategically positioned to confront Israel on its door step and by strengthening Houthis in Yemen Iran wish to have its powerful proxy on Saudis door step. Hence by having Hezbollah and Houthis Iran can anytime bleed its rivals in their home and by engaging its rivals through its proxies Iran can also avoid any 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 Saudis and drain their resources.

In the beginning of current Yemeni conflict Iran was not providing a substantial assistance to Houthis but recently Iranians have 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 road side bombs which is used by Iranian proxy Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq. What has garnered the most publicity however, is Iran’s role as force multiplier for 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 Houthis use number of short range Iranian missiles and rockets most notably Borkan-1, Borkan-2, Qahir and Zelzal-2 missiles. None of these missiles is known to have existed in the Yemeni arsenal before the conflict. Iran is not just sending weapons, they are transferring the knowhow in ballistic missiles to Yemenis. Iran is also using Yemen as a testing ground for its missiles. The Iranian advisors who are helping the Houthis to operate various kind of missiles system are basically testing their accuracy and efficiency as well as their performance against the missile defence systems the United Stated 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 agenda. Now Al Houthis are a mere tool in the hands of the regime in Tehran which they can use anytime to serve their regional aspirations. Iran has always taken advantage of chaos in any country in which they created proxies like- Iraq, Lebanon and Syria hence Iran will never let Yemen be stabilise. Iran has interest in keeping Yemen as a failed state so they can control it through its proxy militia. Houthis have to do some introspection and find out are they a real nationalist movement or mere an Iranian proxy.