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Iran Developing Houthis as its Long-Term Asset

Houthis, officially “Ansar Allah,” are a Yemeni rebel group who adhere to Zaidism, a branch of Shia Islam. Zaidi Imams ruled Yemen for 1,000 years until the 1962 revolution. The 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 the use of arms in 2004 on the 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 to the hands of Iran. Recently, Houthi rebels with Iranian assistance have escalated their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran is providing the Houthis with rockets and missiles in comparison to its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah which is the most powerful Arab Shiite force in the region. It’s very unfortunate that Houthis don’t realise that Iran is not interested in securing peace and prosperity in Yemen. Iran is only helping them in order to create its proxy force in the 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 an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran’s approach in Yemen mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Iran has two arch rivals in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah is strategically positioned to confront Israel on its door step and by strengthening the Houthis in Yemen Iran will have its powerful proxy on the Saudis’ door step. Hence, by using Hezbollah and Houthis Iran can bleed its rivals in their home and by engaging its rivals through its proxies it can also avoid any direct confrontation. Moreover, Iran’s providing missiles and other military support to the Houthis is at very little cost and can put greater pressure on the Saudis and drain their resources.

In the beginning of current Yemeni conflict Iran was not providing substantial assistance to Houthis but recently Iranians have started pouring significant resources into 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 are 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 a 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 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 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 the Houthis is not surprising. What is surprising is that the Houthi militias, which claim to be fighting to liberate Yemen in name of Yemeni nationalism have blindly chosen to take orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards even when these orders completely contradict their agenda. 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 where they created proxies like- Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Iran will never let Yemen be stabilized and has an interest in keeping Yemen as a failed state so they can control it through its proxy militia. Houthis need to become introspective and decide if they a real nationalist movement or merely an Iranian proxy.