The Houthis and outside assistance: Is Iran playing games in Yemen?

Published on 12 December 2013 in Report
Mohammed Al-Hassani (author)

Mohammed Al-Hassani

Are they or aren’t they? Houthis are being accused of accepting support and weapons from Iran. Houthis say they have a large circle of domestic support and do not need Iran’s help.

Are they or aren’t they? Houthis are being accused of accepting support and weapons from Iran. Houthis say they have a large circle of domestic support and do not need Iran’s help.

Yemen, often the battle ground for proxy wars in the region, is no stranger to accusations that Iran funnels money into the country to fund a group known as the Houthis. The Houthis are Zaidi Shi’ites who have battled the government for power in Sa’ada governorate for almost a decade. In March 2011 during Yemen’s popular uprising, the governor of Sa’ada fled and the Houthis took control of the area.  

The group, often termed ‘rebels’ and ‘militants’, are controversial internationally for their anti-American and anti-Israel slogan.

However, they have growing political clout. The Houthis have made a name for themselves under their political wing called Ansar Allah at Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), where their delegates sit side by side with the nation’s major political players, hammering out a plan for Yemen’s future.

While the central government has been relatively welcoming of their presence at the dialogue and in the political scene, they have made it clear that the group’s possible connection to Iran is worrying.  

Yemen’s minister of foreign affairs, Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi, interim President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and Gen. Ali Hassn Al-Ahmadi, the head of Yemen’s national security, have all on separate occasions accused Iran of meddling in Yemeni affairs.

In 2012 and at the beginning of 2013, ships carrying war weapons including guns and missiles were intercepted off the coast of Yemen.

Yemen accused Iran of being behind the multiple shipments, although concrete evidence has never been made public.   

The Houthis have been adamant that they are independent of foreign influences.  A political analyst, Ahmed Sinan, said there is not enough evidence to prove Iran is funneling money to the Houthis.

He argues the Houthis have enough internal support that they wouldn’t need to seek the financial assistance of outside powers.  

“The Houthis amassed weapons from the Sa’ada wars and from open markets where weapons are sold. Some pro-Houthi military leaders help the Houthis and provide weapons for them,” he said.

The Houthis fought six wars with the central government in Sa’ada between 2004 and 2010 under former President Ali Abdualla Saleh, who was ousted following popular protests in 2011.  

Ali Al-Bukhaiti, the spokesperson for the Houthis at the NDC, said that accusations of ties to Iran are just a spillover from the former administration of Saleh.

“The former regime aimed to extort and get international and regional support using the claims of ‘Iranian assistance’ as a scarecrow,” he said.

Al-Bukhaiti points out that the transitional government issued an official apology this year for the Sa’ada wars.  

“It doesn’t make sense that the government apologizes to the Houthis…and then has doubts about their patriotism,” he said.  

In a Wikileaks cable from 2009, Mohammed Naji Al-Shaif, a tribal leader with close ties to Saleh and his former circle, said that Saudi Arabian officials privately speculated that Saleh’s claims of Iran propping up the Houthis were exaggerated to enlist Saudi support for the wars against the Houthis in Sa’ada.  

Moreover, the U.S. previously admitted that they have no solid evidence linking Iran to the Houthis.

"Many of our friends and partners have talked to us about the possibility of outside support to the Houthis (rebels) and we have heard the theories about Iranian support to the Houthis," Reuters quoted then-U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman as saying at a regional security conference in Bahrain.

"To be frank, we don't have independent information about this," said Feltman, who is now the U.N. under secretary general for political affairs.

But the Houthis growing power still leads many to believe that Iran is supporting the group.  

Mohammed Al-Amrani, a local researcher concerned with Houthi affairs, said that the Houthis have expanded their presence in Medi Harbor in Hajja governorate. This seaport is strategically important and is where the Houthis are believed to receive weapons shipments. Al-Amrani says weak government oversight in the area, a couple of security boats, has allowed the group to capitalize and take control.    

“Lots of land plots and real estate have been bought by the Houthis or others loyal to them [near the port],” Al-Amrani said. “These lands were farms, but have been turned into arsenals.”

Al-Bukhaiti called these claims absurd.  

“When we have a presence somewhere, everyone knows it,” he said.