No Clean Hands: Reaction and Counter-Reaction in the Iranian-Saudi Proxy War in Yemen

On Tuesday afternoon President Donald Trump issued a statement on the death of Jamal Khashoggi, suggesting that, among other things, “Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave.” Trump also claimed that Iran was “responsible” for the “bloody proxy war” in Yemen.

This is, at best, ill-informed rhetoric from a disengaged president. No one has clean hands in Yemen. Not Iran, not Saudi Arabia, not the UAE, the Houthis, or Yemen’s (mostly) exiled government. Not even the US and the UK are innocent bystanders. When it comes to “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” there is plenty of blame to go around.

But what exactly is Iran’s role in Yemen? Is it the evil puppet-master Trump suggests, controlling the Houthis as a proxy force, or is something else going on? To get at the truth of what is happening on the ground in Yemen it is helpful to look back at recent history and trace Iran’s evolving relationship with the Houthis.

Trump is not the first president to label the Houthis an Iranian proxy. As far back as June 2004 then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh did the same thing. At the time, Saleh was attempting to link his own domestic problems to larger international concerns, hoping to play on US and Saudi fears of Iranian action in the Arabian Peninsula. The only problem for Saleh was that no one believed him–and rightfully so. The Houthis were a local group with local grievances. Even in 2009, after five separate Houthi wars in Yemen, the US Embassy said there was “little evidence” to support Saleh’s claim. The Saudis were similarly skeptical, telling one local Yemeni shaykh: “We know Saleh is lying about Iran, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

But 2009 was also the year that things started to change. Saudi Arabia got sucked into the Houthi war in Yemen, and Iran spotted an opportunity to damage its regional rival. Over the past nine years, Iran’s relationship with the Houthis has moved from attraction to alliance, as Saudi fears of Iranian influence in Yemen have turned into a quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy. The more Saudi Arabia has attempted to combat Iran in Yemen the deeper Iran has become involved in Yemen and the Houthis have been pulled into Tehran’s orbit.

What follows is a sketch of the history of that evolving relationship and how the Houthi and Iranian alliance came about. Only with a true understanding of these dynamics, can policymakers and the public begin to find the best way forward in Yemen and in US-Saudi relations.

Attraction: 2009 – 2011

In November 2009, in the midst of the sixth local Houthi war in Yemen, a group of Houthi fighters crossed into Saudi Arabia. Their purpose was to take control of some elevated ground inside Saudi Arabia, which they said the Yemeni army was using to outflank them. But as the fighters crossed the border they encountered a Saudi patrol, and in the ensuing gun battle, one Saudi guard was killed and another was wounded and later died.

That small clash, which was quickly followed by several more, represented the beginning of the internationalization of the Houthi conflict. Over the next several weeks, Saudi Arabia got more involved in the war and, more than a thousand miles away, Iran took notice. There is little evidence to suggest Iran was supporting or supplying the Houthis prior to 2009, but after Saudi Arabia became involved in the fighting Iran started laying the groundwork for future cooperation with the Houthis. Among the steps it took, according to a recent article by Michael Knights, was positioning “an Iranian intelligence gathering ship” in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.

Assistance: 2011 – 2014

But it was only in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, when Saudi Arabia sided with the regime in Egypt and sent troops to Bahrain, that Iran began providing aid and assistance to the Houthis. It started small and, according to a New York Times report, came with “no strings attached.” In September 2011 and again in January 2012, Iran flew several Yemeni activists, including southerners and other non-Houthis, to Tehran for a conference where participants received funding and encouragement to keep protesting.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down a month after the second conference, in February 2012, in exchange for immunity, and the Houthis slowly slipped back to their home governorate of Sa’dah. Yemen’s new government was weak and disorganized and the Houthis had little trouble setting up their own mini-state in Sa’dah. And that’s when the Iranian weapons started to appear. At first it was mostly small arms and explosives. But in January 2013, a joint Yemeni-US operation boarded a 130-foot wooden ship called Jihan-1. Onboard were more small arms and explosives but also Iranian-made night vision goggles and surface-to-air missiles.

A year later, as Yemen’s government collapsed, the Houthis started pressing for more. They moved out of Sa’dah, overrunning a military base in the neighboring governorate of Amran that summer, and by late September they had taken Yemen’s capital of Sanaa. The Houthis eventually placed Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, under house arrest in what amounted to a coup. Hadi later escaped, made his way to Saudi Arabia, and asked for outside military assistance to help him retake Sanaa.

Alliance: 2015 – Present

Saudi Arabia answered Hadi’s call on March 26, 2015, launching Operation Decisive Storm, which has been backed by US, British, and French armaments and significant US logistical support. But the deeper Saudi Arabia, with its coalition of African and Middle Eastern countries, got into the war in Yemen, the more Iran responded, smuggling increasingly sophisticated weapons to the Houthis. In November 2016, a shipment of drones was seized in the central Yemeni governorate of Marib. Conflict Armaments Research, which examined the drones, said they were most likely of Iranian manufacture. A few months later it was a “drone boat,” which also appeared to be of Iranian origin. Then, in the summer of 2017, it was the ballistic missiles, which had been cut up, smuggled into Yemen, re-welded, and then fired into Saudi Arabia.

Iran does not now and never has had command-and-control over the Houthis. The Houthis are an Iranian ally, not an Iranian proxy. What started as Iranian interest in the Houthis has grown into a full-fledged alliance based on shared goals and a common enemy. And it is this fact that makes the war in Yemen more difficult to resolve. Unlike in years past, Iran now has a vested interested in the Houthis’ political survival as well as in their ability to project power throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

There is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen. The UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen has said as much, as have the US State and Defense Departments. President Trump’s statement on Tuesday makes finding a political compromise that much more difficult. By painting the war in Yemen as black and white – innocents and offenders – he is providing cover for continued fighting. Yemen has had enough of that, and what it needs now is sustained and coordinated international pressure on all sides to make the difficult compromises for peace.

 

Photo credit – A Yemeni fighter from the Al Malqa (“Giants”) Brigades loyal to the Saudi-backed government points a Kalashnikov rifle toward a crossed-out plastered poster of the Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi, on the southern outskirts of the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah on June 21, 2018 (Photo by SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images). 

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About the Author(s)

Gregory D. Johnsen

Gregory Johnsen served on the Yemen Panel of Experts for the UN Security Council. He is the author of the book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.