Arms intercept shows Iran still uses Houthis to disrupt Arabian peninsula

The US interception of a secret Iranian weapons shipment to Yemen rebels shows the Islamic Republic continues to destabilize the Arabian peninsula.

For the better part of a decade, a civil war has ripped Yemen apart again.

Many perceive the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen, and Iran.

Yemen is very nearly a failed state. It has been wracked by violence for nearly two decades. It’s a safe haven for jihadist elements of the Al Qaeda and ISIS varieties and more. Yemen’s economy is almost flat lining due to declining oil reserves. The country suffers from chronic water shortages. Combined with the raging violence, the result has been a humanitarian disaster.

What General David Petraeus said in 2009 hasn’t changed much:

“Yemen stands out from its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula. The inability of the Yemeni government to secure and exercise control over all its territory offers terrorist and insurgent groups in the region, particularly Al Qaeda, a safe haven from which to plan, organize and support terrorist operations.”[1]

 Iranian interference has ensured no possibility for stability or peace in Yemen.

Iran’s disruptive role in Yemen has involved all forms of support for what the mainstream media call Houthi “rebels.”

The fact is, the Houthis are jihadis, like Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not a group of “rebels.”

The Houthi movement’s official name is Ansar Allah, which means Supporters of Allah. The movement originated in northern Yemen in the early 1990s and they are called Houthis because their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, was from the Houthi tribe. They are now led by his brother, Abdul Malik al-Houthi.

While the Houthis have gone to some lengths to portray themselves as an anti-corruption movement seeking to create greater economic opportunity for Yemenis and to resist Saudi influence, a closer examination shows that the movement is called Ansar Allah for a reason. They are trained, funded, and armed by Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran.

Ansar Allah’s slogan is, “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.”

The natural affinity between the Houthis and Iran stems largely from their similar religious beliefs. Iran is dominated by Shia Iran and the Houthis are Zaydi Muslims, a sect of Shia Islam.

Iran has a keen interest in Yemen. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, the Iranians have historically sought to export their revolution to radical Shia Muslims and other Islamists. This includes supporting non-state entities who are in opposition to regional powers who Iran views as hostile. One of Iran’s clear goals is to establish their Islamic republic as a recognized great, global power. By exporting its revolution and establishing movements—and perhaps regimes—in foreign locales, Iranian leaders believe they can prove the worth of their increasingly unpopular Islamic Republic.

Iran also sees Yemen as a check on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Support for the Houthis is a way to exploit troubles on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and destabilize the region.

The Obama administration became concerned about Iranian meddling in Iran, though not enough to act. Obama State Department official Gerald M. Feierstein summed up the worries at the time:

“We remain deeply concerned about Iranian support for the Houthis’ military ambitions. To the best of our understanding, the Houthis are not controlled by Iran. However, we have seen in recent years significant growth and expansion of Iranian engagement with the Houthis. We believe that Iran sees opportunities with the Houthis to expand its influence in Yemen and threaten Saudi and Gulf Arab interests. Iran provides financial support, weapons, training and intelligence to the Houthis… Finally, the destabilizing actions of the Houthis and their allies have created conditions that are beneficial to Al Qaeda.”[2]

The Obama administration had a poor track record in Yemen. In September, 2014, President Obama held up his strategy in Yemen as a model to combat ISIS. Then, just one week after Obama’s speech, the Iranian-backed Houthis seized control of the Yemeni government and overthrew the regime that was allied with the U.S.

Saudis have led a military coalition to fight the Houthis and back the Yemen government. In 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda merged to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) after the Saudis finally started to crack down on Al Qaeda elements inside the kingdom. Many Saudi Al Qaeda members fled to Yemen to escape.[3]  AQAP capitalized on the violence in Yemen, including assaulting a prison in March 2015 and releasing hundreds of inmates, including Al Qaeda terrorists.[4]

The Houthis are an Iranian-manufactured force. The movement is in fact native to Yemen and was in existence before the Iranians arrived on the scene. It is closer to the truth that the Iranians capitalized on the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see just where the Houthi movement would be without Iranian arms and support.

Houthi ties to Iran go back to the late 1970s when their leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi studied Shia Islam in Iran under the ayatollahs. [5]

Iran has supplied the Houthis with arms via air and sea. At one point there were several flights between Iran and Yemen every week.[6] The shipments became surreptitious after a UN Arms Embargo was imposed in 2015 banning supplies of arms to the Houthis.

Since then Iran has been caught red-handed shipping arms to the Houthis, something that has caught the attention of even the United Nations. UN reports detail that Iranian fishing vessels were discovered to be smuggling 900 anti-tank missiles to Yemen and other Iranian ships were caught transporting MANPADs (handheld surface to air missiles), rockets, rocket propelled grenade launchers and explosives to the Houthis.[7]

The Iranians have also smuggled drones and drone technology to the Houthis. In November 2016, Saudi forces intercepted a shipment of 6 Iranian drones and parts to build 24 more. The Iranians had attempted to disguise the drones and the parts but careful examination revealed that they were identical to known Iranian Ababil-T drones and component parts.[8]

Periodically, the Houthis have laid sea mines in the Red Sea in violation of international law. The UN determined that the mines were “consistent in size and shape of sea mines manufactured in Iran.”[9]

Finally, the UN has determined that the Iranians have either supplied the Houthis with ballistic missiles or facilitated the transfer of ballistic missiles and associated components, including Burkan-2h ballistic missiles, field storage tanks and liquid fuel for the missiles. With a range of 500 miles, the Burkan is capable of hitting key targets in Saudi Arabia, as well as possibly some U.S. units in the Persian Gulf area.[10]

In addition to supplying the Houthis with weaponry, the Iranians, along with their Hezbollah proxies, have been training Houthis. According to General Joseph Votel of the U.S. Central Command, the Iranians have trained the Houthis on a variety of weapons systems, drones, IEDs and insurgency tactics.[11]

The Houthis’ relationship with Hezbollah appears to be extensive. Unlike the Iranians themselves, Hezbollah is not shy about its role in Yemen and supporting the Houthis. They claim to have assisted the Houthis from the earliest days of their insurgency. Hezbollah figurehead Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah’s videotaped lectures and books were distributed widely among the Houthis.  And Abdul-Malik al-Houthi’s televised and recorded speeches are clearly modeled after those of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. In fact, according to Al Araby magazine in the UK, the Houthi’s media arm was put together by Hezbollah.

According to The Long War Journal, Ali Akbar Velayati, International Affairs advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, stated in October 2014 that “We are hopeful that Ansar-Allah has the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah has in Lebanon.”

But Hezbollah’s involvement may also be direct. In 2016, an unnamed Hezbollah leader bragged that “After we are done in Syria, we will start with Yemen. Hezbollah is already there. Who do you think fires missiles into Saudi Arabia? It’s not the Houthis in their sandals, it is us.”[12]

The Houthi-Hezbollah relationship is a two-way street. The Houthis used a radio station that they seized to raise $132,000 to be sent to Hezbollah.[13]

In short, the Houthi movement is a tentacle of the Iranian global jihadist network, even if it is not yet a direct proxy of the Iranian Islamic revolution. The Houthis’ ideology clearly mirrors that of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. The Houthis could not survive militarily or politically without Iranian and Hezbollah support. As such they represent a threat to U.S. allies and U.S. forces in the Gulf region.

[1] Statement of David H. Petraeus Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 1, 2009.

[2] Statement of Honorable Gerald M. Feierstein House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, April 14, 2015.

[3] W. Andrew Terrill, “The Conflicts in Yemen and U.S. National Security January 2011, Strategic Studies Institute U.S. Army War College. P. 5.

[4] Statement of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, April 14, 2015.

[5] Juneau, “No Yemen’s Houthis Actually Aren’t Iranian Puppets.”

[6] Statement of Rep. Ted Deutch House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, April 14, 2015.

[7] Ahmed Himmiche et al., Panel of Experts on Yemen Report S/2018/68 (United Nations: United Nations Security Council, January 2018, Page 19.

[8] Himmiche et al., Panel of Experts on Yemen Report S/2018/68, Page. 32

[9] Himmiche et al., Panel of Experts on Yemen Report S/2018/68, Page 34.

[10] Himmiche et al., Panel of Experts on Yemen Report S/2018/68, Page 2.

[11] Joyce Karam, “US General: Iran Achieved in Five Years in Yemen What It Did in Lebanon in Two Decades, The National, February 27, 2018.

[12] Jeremy Sharp, “Yemen: Civil War and Regional Intervention,” CRSInsight, (October 2016). P. 19.

[13] Bloomberg News, “Radio Station in War Torn Yemen Raises $132,000 for Hezbollah,” July 6, 2019.

About Christopher Holton

Christopher Holton is Vice President for Outreach at the Center for Security Policy. Mr. Holton came to the Center after serving as president and marketing director of Blanchard & Co. and editor-in-chief of the Blanchard Economic Research Unit from 1990 to 2003. As chief of the Blanchard Economic Research Unit in 2000, he conceived and commissioned the Center for Security Policy special report “Clinton’s Legacy: The Dangerous Decade.” Holton is a member of the Board of Advisers of Follow Holton on Twitter @CHoltonCSP