The general consensus among Western observers is that Iran is at best a minor foreign participant in the internal Yemeni struggle for power. On the other hand, Iran’s Arab rivals in the region, principally Saudi Arabia, see Tehran as both an instigator and a key driver behind Yemen’s domestic political turmoil. The reality seems to lie somewhere between the two viewpoints. Still, though it is hard to ignore Tehran’s newfound interest in Yemen, it does not necessarily have to result in a showdown with Riyadh.
Iran’s role in Yemen’s ongoing conflicts is a contentious topic, and the extent of its intervention is still questionable. Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished and arguably most fragmented state, has experienced violent civil conflict since the north and south unified in 1990. One of the country’s most persistent rebellions took place in the north, on the border with Saudi Arabia, the home region of Yemen’s Zaidi population.
The Zaidis, comprising some 35-40% of Yemen’s total population of 24 million, are an offshoot of mainstream Shiite Islam. However, their religious links to Iran, the world’s largest Shiite state, has never been as strong as the ties between Iran and other Arab Shiite populations in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain or the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
In fact, between 2004 and 2010 — when militant Zaidis engaged in 10 rounds of armed campaigns against the central government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa — Tehran's maneuvering was careful in the Yemeni civil war. Iranian support for the Zaidi rebels — also known as Houthis, after Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, one of the founders of the movement — was never straightforward like Tehran’s backing for Shiite dissidents elsewhere in the region.
Saleh and Riyadh maintained that Iran was the hidden hand behind the Houthi rebels, citing the reported presence of Iranian military advisers among Houthi fighters and the seizure of arms destined for the rebels. The argument went that Iran was hell bent on creating a political-military force out of the Houthi movement that would look to Tehran for leadership, like Hezbollah in Lebanon. The evidence, however, never conclusively pointed to Tehran as playing a decisive role in the Yemeni civil war.
Meanwhile, to claim that Iran has no footprint in Yemen is equally disingenuous. There was evidence of Iranian outreach to the Zaidi community in early post-unification Yemen and as early as 1993, Iran was said to have admitted a few hundred Yemeni seminarians to study in the country. Naturally, there were fears of Iranian indoctrination of the Zaidis in the ways of the Islamic Republic. There is also no doubt that the Houthi movement is both inspired and likely equipped by elements in Tehran in putting together its anti-US and anti-Israeli rhetoric campaigns, which have become more pronounced.
In more recent years, there have also been reports of the Iranian authorities looking for ways to bridge theological differences with the Zaidis, given doctrinal differences between them and the "Twelver" school dominant elsewhere in the region.
Despite Iran's efforts, Tehran’s incitement of Yemen’s Zaidi community was never proven. As Charles Schmitz of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies put it, “Iran supports the Houthis, but Iranian support appears to be mostly moral. Houthi weapons are Yemeni, and Houthi legitimacy is domestic. Iran probably has little impact on the Houthi leadership.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia in the post-Saleh era
Iran enthusiastically welcomed the departure of Saleh in late 2011. Again, there is no evidence that Iran played any role in bringing about this outcome. Even Saudi Arabia, Saleh’s big foreign supporter, accepted that his continuing rule was untenable and was a main cosponsor behind the power-transition deal.
By most accounts, Saleh’s departure opened up a new chapter in Iran’s outlook on Yemen. A couple of key factors appear to have pushed this development. First, the Houthi movement was relatively deft in taking advantage of Saleh’s fall and attempting to ride the wave of political upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring. By tapping into discontent among Yemen’s other populations and making political deals, the Houthis were for the first time able to become a national force. The political appeal of the Houthi movement was therefore elevated in Tehran’s eyes.
Meanwhile, unlike the period of 2004-10, the state-run Iranian media suddenly began to refer to the Houthi movement explicitly as “Shiite rebels” in a struggle against Saudi-sponsored extremist Sunnis such as al-Qaeda in Yemen. As Tehran’s proxy war with Riyadh in Yemen intensified, driven by the broader Iranian-Saudi rivalry, the Iranians became less and less concerned about open association with the Houthis.
Iranian diplomat Nour Ahmad Nikbakht was kidnapped in Sanaa on July 21, 2013. In a January 2014 kidnapping attempt, another Iranian diplomat was killed. Iran promised that the country involved in the assassination of the Iranian diplomat would be revealed, but the state-run Iranian media made it abundantly clear that Tehran blamed the Saudis for the fate of the diplomats.
In October 2014, just weeks after Houthi fighters had secured Sanaa, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, received a delegation of Houthis and was quoted as saying, “We are aware of your victories and we are very glad about it.” A handful of Iranian political figures were far more vehement in expressing support and cast it in the context of the rivalry with Riyadh. Ali Zakani, a hard-line parliamentarian, declared that the arrival of the Houthi fighters in Sanaa meant that the “fourth Arab capital” (after Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus) had fallen to the Islamic Republic.
No other senior Iranian official repeated the provocative claim, but it nonetheless made for angry headlines across the Persian Gulf Arab states. In reality, even the most hard-line Iranian analysts describe the Houthi campaign merely as one for more rights within the Yemeni state as opposed to secession from it.
This hard reality about Yemen, despite the rancor in Iranian-Saudi relations, provides the basis for an understanding about Yemen’s political future. The simple fact is that Tehran is highly unlikely and unable to interject itself into Yemen on a large scale. Sanctions-hit Iran is not in a position to be able to play much of a role in this impoverished country that above all needs a helping economic hand to stop declining any further as a nation-state. Nor does Yemen provide Iran with much strategic value, except that it gives Tehran access to Saudi Arabia’s troubled underbelly.
On the Saudi side, the Houthis have no doubt been a security nuisance — engaging in border clashes in 2009 — but Riyadh still considers Yemen’s Islah Party, an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood, a bigger long-term threat to Saudi stability. An all-out campaign against the Houthis is not only going to heighten tensions with Iran, but can also result in the inevitable strengthening of Islah, a rival of the Houthi movement.
For these practical reasons, it was perhaps unsurprising that both the Saudis and the Iranians welcomed the unity government that was created in Sanaa in September. The deal was agreed on as the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers were meeting at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. One thing is for sure: Despite the intense regional rivalry and Yemen increasingly becoming a battleground, both Tehran and Riyadh have good reasons to avoid being dragged further into the Yemeni quandary.