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Iran’s military support for the Houthis is not the biggest threat

Earlier this week, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, America’s highest-ranking navy officer in the Middle East, warned of Iran’s evolving military support to the Houthis via the smuggling of increasingly potent and advanced weapons. Yet despite Iran’s worrying military support to the Yemeni militant group, the deeper threat to Saudi and Emirati security is the ideological affinity between Iran’s hardliners and the Houthi leadership.
Donegan made a specific reference to anti-ship and ballistic missiles — many of which have been fired at Saudi Arabia — as well as technology and training provided by Iran to the Houthis. Recent reports claim the leadership of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has decided to step up this military support.
Among the gear military experts believe is being transferred by the IRGC to the Houthis is drone technology adapted to carry explosives. These have been used to disable radar components of the Arab coalition’s Patriot anti-missile batteries.
Over the past year, US officials confirmed the interception of five weapons shipments from Iran, the first of these in April 2015. Also that year, a UN panel of experts concluded that Tehran had been shipping weapons to the Houthis since at least 2009.
That year, the Houthis launched an offensive into Saudi Arabia, and there were reports of IRGC and Hezbollah advisers assisting them to coordinate their operations. At the time, Gen. David Petreaus, then-CENTCOM commander, hinted at Iran’s involvement in the conflict.
A 2016 report by the UK-based private consultancy Conflict Armament Research described evidence of a constant flow of weapons from Iran to Yemen. A well-known case took place in 2012, when the vessel Jihan, with an all-Yemeni crew, was intercepted by a joint operation by the Yemeni Coast Guard and US Navy.
Crew members said they had departed from Chabahar in Iran, and among the weapons seized were man-portable air-defense systems, 122-mm rockets, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and C-4 plastic explosive blocks.
Domestic factors are crucial in explaining the Houthi rebellions against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government between 2004 and 2011. But Western experts generally downplay Iran’s radicalizing influence. An opinion commonly heard about the degree of Iranian involvement in Yemen is that Iran’s ties to the Houthis are superficial, and the actions of the Arab Gulf states and the US are pushing them to align with Tehran.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this year, two Yemen experts at the International Crisis Group argued: “The Houthis are not Hezbollah and, despite their publicly expressed sympathies for the Islamic Republic, have not developed a similarly tight relationship with Tehran. Yet the combined efforts of Washington and its Gulf allies could still drive the Houthis into Tehran’s arms.”
This argument could have held some ground had it been made 10 years ago. General statements from Iranian officials boasting about Tehran’s control of four Arab capitals, Sanaa included, and Houthi chants of “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curses upon the Jews!” dating back to the early 2000s are only the tip of the iceberg.

What is more worrying for Gulf security is the ideological affinity between the Houthi leadership and Iran’s hardliners.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Various senior Iranian figures, mostly associated with the IRGC, have made specific comments about the nature of Iranian support to the Houthis, and how the militant group fits into Tehran’s larger regional strategy. Moreover, in media interviews, Hezbollah commanders make no secret of their active role in building up the capabilities of Houthi militias over the years, including training in Iran and Yemen.
But it is not the military equipment, the logistical, financial and intelligence support, or the training from the IRGC and Hezbollah that pose the biggest threat to Gulf security. Accessing arms in Yemen is easy. Sitting next to major shipping lanes and the Horn of Africa, with a modern history filled with armed conflict, and with weak government control over territory and porous borders, Yemen has been a primary target for arms trafficking.
According to a 2015 report by a UN panel of experts, “estimates reiterated by sheikhs, Government officials and independent researchers put the number of serviceable weapons in Yemen at between 40 million and 60 million.”
The mercurial pact with Saleh also provided the Houthis with a major source of weaponry, a significant proportion of it supplied over the years by the US to Yemeni government forces. In the arsenal of Saleh’s forces were the feared ballistic missiles that have repeatedly been fired at Saudi territory, and that were one of the main targets of Operation Decisive Storm.
Iran’s military support to the Houthis is a symptom of how the Houthi leadership willingly fell into the trap of Iranian hardliners’ revolutionary, radicalizing and instrumental narrative of Muslim (and specifically Shiite) oppression. But what is often missed is that there are various branches of Zaydism, the religious current to which about 40 percent of Yemen’s population adheres.
The Houthi leadership’s specific branch, Jaroudiah, is closer to Twelver Shiism, and has been shaped further in that direction by Houthi ideologues. They are Zaydi revivalists who have pledged allegiance to Iran’s clerical establishment. The question is, is it too late to bring the Houthis back into the realm of moderation?
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida