Many Yemen experts make the legitimate case that the Houthis are not simply Iranian stooges, due to a whole number of cultural and historic factors. There is some truth to this argument, but it misses the point for several reasons:
The Houthis are a Zaidi minority group from the far northwest of the country. As recently as 2005 the Houthis claimed only around 2,000-3,000 fighters. They would never have seized control of half of Yemen without massive Iranian support – funding, weapons and training. Iranian officials have been very open about this and have been boasting about their “achievements” in Yemen. Large shipments of arms have been arriving very recently.
The more the Houthis consolidate their hold on Yemen, the more they will be beholden to Iran – just as Al-Assad is totally beholden to Iran in Syria. Iran is the only significant state likely to do business with the Houthis and Iranian officials have been very explicit about their support being based on widening their geopolitical influence and having a fourth country (after Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) wholly subservient to Iranian hegemony.
It matters very little that Iran has minimal historical influence in Yemen, or that the Houthis and other groupings have very different aspirations and objectives. At the end of the day Iran would be the major regional power, pulling the strings in a “Houthi” state – just as former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was dangerously under the sway of Iran.
Iran exploits the weakness of states. Iran profited from instability in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere to extend its influence over proxies, militias and other major actors. Iran sought to do the same with the Bahraini opposition. As long as governance in Yemen is contested, the ground is wide open for Iran to extend its control and influence.
The GCC states were right to intervene in Yemen so as to restore order to the situation and bring the country back from civil war – but also for the reason of curtailing Iranian influence.
Iran has to be made to realize that its efforts to undermine stability come with a cost. Arab nations have demonstrated that they will not stand idly by while Iran sets Yemen ablaze; while supporting instability and ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria.
Iran sees the region like a chess board. It boasts of its control over states like Iraq and Lebanon, while not realizing that this imperialist and expansionist logic is consigned to the dustbin of history. Comments by Iranian leaders boasting of their use of illegal and unacceptable tactics to annex other states should be enough to see them indicted at the International Court in The Hague.
When we look at the regional picture, Iran – even more that terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda – is the greatest threat to regional security. America should realize that tacit support for pro-Iran militias in Iraq is creating far greater long-term problems than it solves. The same goes for anything that gives legitimacy or recognition for the Houthis in Yemen.
The Arab intervention in Yemen brings with it the responsibility to follow through and play a significant role in restoring order. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and other key states will have a substantial task in not just destroying the Houthis’ offensive capability, but in supporting the legitimate leadership in Yemen in restoring order and security. Only then will Iran’s ability to maliciously influence events be reduced.
America and the West must also do far more to force Iran to realize that illegal interference in countries like Yemen and Iraq has severe consequences.
Our thoughts are with the Yemeni people. Iran’s meddling has resulted in a massive human tragedy and has brought Yemen to an effective state of civil war. Repairing the damage will be a huge and lengthy task.
We hope that Arab states will continue to stand alongside the Yemeni people and that through our shared efforts we can see a new dawn of stability and hope for Yemen.