The Houthis must balance a strengthening alliance with Iran and fragile political negotiations with Saudi Arabia
After Soleimani: Houthis face crossroads in Saudi and Iranian relations
The relationship between Iran and the Houthi rebels in Yemen has undergone a remarkable transition militarily, diplomatically and politically in the last half of 2019. After publicizing a string of high-level meetings and agreements, Tehran formally recognized the Houthis as the legitimate authority in Yemen and accepted their appointment of Ibrahim Al-Dailami as Yemen’s ambassador to Iran.
At the same time, Houthis are engaged in a new round of political negotiations with Iran’s regional nemesis and Yemen’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The talks, reportedly aimed at finding a political solution to the five year war, were prompted by devastating missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities in mid-September. The Houthis have insisted that they carried out the strikes, despite the conclusion of various intelligence agencies the strikes were orchestrated by Iran. Regardless of who was responsible, the strengthening Houthi-Iranian alliance has forced Saudi Arabia to alter its approach to the war in Yemen.
After the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in early January, the Houthis have become even more important to the regional agendas of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Almasdar Online spoke with three analysts about where the Houthi-Iranian relationship stands and where it’s going in 2020.
Hannah Porter, a Washington D.C.-based journalist and analyst on Yemen:
While the past year has seen a lot of important developments in the relations between the Houthis and Iran, the two parties are at a turning point, according to Porter. “It seems that Yemen's international war may soon end, and negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudis are continuing," she said.
Porter argues that Yemen is not as important to Iran as Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. “If Iran loses Yemen, that's not going to be a disaster for them,” she said, noting that not everyone in the Houthi establishment is wedded to Iran either. “There seems to be more than one wing with some pursuing an agreement with Saudi Arabia and others staying in lock step with Iran,” she said. "This division will cause a lot of problems for the group, but it's hard to know exactly how at the moment."
Tehran's financial and military support to the Houthis is a means to pressure Saudi Arabia, she added, but if the Houthis make peace with Saudi Arabia, there is little incentive for Iran to provide such support.
Porter said she believes the Houthis ultimately seek a relationship with Saudi Arabia. "They realize that their presence in power (after the war) is not possible without Riyadh's approval. Therefore, we see that they always blame America and Israel (not Saudi Arabia) for the majority of the problems in Yemen," she said.
Adnan Hashem, a Yemeni writer and researcher on Gulf and Iranian affairs:
The development of the relationship can be seen in the high-level coordination between the two parties on the air strikes that targeted Saudi Arabia, and at the diplomatic and political level with Iran formally recognizing the Houthis for the first time and accepting the appointment of their ambassador in Tehran, he said.
But what does Iran want from the Houthis and what do the Houthis want from Iran?
"Iran sees the Houthis as a less expensive and more influential way to fight its traditional Saudi enemy," Hashem said. “Over the past year, Iran has shown once again that it is using the Houthis as a tool to attack Riyadh without taking responsibility.”
The Houthis, for their part, see their relationship with Iran as an important source of weapons technology, in addition to ideological links and possibly military commitments within Iran's resistance axis that lend support to the Houthis’ survival, he said.
"It's hard to find a tool to measure the extent to which the Houthis are connected to Iran, but assuming that the Houthis' relationship with Iran before 2014 was five percent, the relationship has multiplied several times during the Saudi-led war against the Houthis," he said. “Tehran is an obstacle to a political solution and the Houthis' rapprochement with Riyadh."
Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Center for Gulf Studies at Qatar University with expertise on contemporary Middle East history and Iran:
Tehran is "trying to impose the rules of the game in Yemen to respond to Saudi Arabia’s (military operations),” he said. “These rules depend on strengthening the recognition of the Houthis, and getting them to open up to dialogue with all the powers, including America."
"This, according to Iran, will lead to a gradual recognition of the Houthis as a de facto force, especially with the destruction of other political forces and the difficulties that face attempts by Riyadh-based President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to reinstate Yemeni state institutions.”
"Iran's ultimate strategy seeks to put the Houthis at the forefront of Yemen's political scene, but this scene has not yet been formed,” he said, noting that one of the challenges to winning widespread political support for the Houthis is that it is a family. To sidestep that problem, the group rebranded itself Ansar Allah, “which created a picture of the Houthis that has a social depth and a trans-sectarian identity inside Yemen and is representative of most Yemenis," he said.
From the Houthis’ perspective, according to Al-Zawairi, they are trying to reposition the group within Yemen's political landscape in a new way to present themselves as a Yemeni political current and to move tactically away from Iran. “What prompted this strategy was dialogues with multiple countries regionally and internationally," he said.
"This attempt has not succeeded and will not work in the long run, and this has to do with the shallowness of the political experience as a whole for the Houthis," Zweiri said.
Important dates in Houthi-Iranian relations in 2019
August: Houthi spokesman and head of negotiating delegation, Mohammad Abdulsalam, visited Tehran and met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who broke protocols for formally receiving a junior leader. The visiting delegation conveyed a message from Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, renewing the group’s allegiance to him. "We consider your state to be an extension of the Line of the Prophet of Islam and the mandate of the Emir of the Believers," the Houthi spokesman told Khamenei.
Later that month, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that it had organized a tripartite meeting involving the Houthi delegation and the ambassadors of four European countries, Germany, France, Britain and Italy, as well as the Iranian government.
September: The Iranian Army's Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri confirmed in an interview with China's Phoenix TV channel that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was providing advisory support to the Yemeni Army, referring to Houthi forces.
October: Houthi-run Al-Alam TV reported that the Houthis' spokesman, Abdulsalam, visited Tehran and met with Khamenei and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss common issues.
November: Iran approves the appointment of Ibrahim Al-Dailami, ambassador and commissioner of the Houthis in Tehran, noting that Houthis are the legitimate authority in Yemen.
December: Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said that "Yemen is Iran’s greatest issue."
December: Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Amir Hatemi meets Al-Dailami and talks about the need to strengthen the relationship between the Iranian and Yemeni armies.