Source: Foreign Affairs
Jan 29, 2024
Iran’s New Best Friends
The Houthis Have Become Key Partners in Tehran’s Quest for Regional Dominance
ince November, the Red Sea has become the site of escalating attacks by Yemen’s Houthi movement, the armed group that governs most of Yemen’s population. These assaults, which the Houthi rebels say are designed to pressure Israel to end the war in Gaza, mark the emergence of a new conflict zone in the already volatile Middle East. By effectively closing the sea to cargo ships, the strikes have disrupted global trade and earned the Houthis unprecedented international attention.
The attacks have done an especially good job of earning the Houthis attention—and support—from Iran. Traditionally, the militia has been a second-tier partner for the Islamic Republic, which tends to work more closely with Hezbollah and other militia groups that share its anti-American ideology. But Iran desperately wants to increase its power in the Red Sea so it can stop the U.S. Navy from seizing its oil tankers as they evade Western sanctions, and the Houthis have proved that they can project power across the entire body of water. They have also proved they can distract and damage Iran’s three main regional rivals: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Houthis are fast becoming a central part of Tehran’s “axis of resistance.” In fact, they could soon be its most pivotal member.
For the Houthis, this deepening partnership comes at the perfect time. The group has already made itself the sole political and military force in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. With additional moral and material support, external and internal alike, it could capture the whole country and become a proper state actor. In fact, the attacks on Red Sea ships are part of the Houthis’ state-building mission. By declaring that its strikes are in defense of the Palestinians, the Houthis are trying to bolster their popularity among Yemenis. By holding up global commerce, the group hopes it can transform the Arab world’s most impoverished country into a powerful military force.
Unfortunately, Washington has no easy way to thwart either the Houthis’ or the Iranians’ plans. The current U.S. strategy—launching missiles at Houthi weapons stockpiles and training facilities—may temporarily disrupt the militia’s ability to strike ships. But the attacks unintentionally advance the group’s agenda by allowing it to claim it is fighting imperialism, and they help Iran by fortifying its political foothold in the Middle East. Washington should therefore cease the strikes. It should, instead, work to halt the war in Gaza. The United States should also try to strengthen the region’s diplomatic agreements and shore up its security framework. Otherwise, the Houthi-Iranian partnership will only grow stronger, as will Tehran’s leverage in the region.
IN THE SAME BOAT
Before Ali Abdullah Saleh—the longtime ruler of Yemen—was toppled during the Arab Spring protests in 2011, the Houthis were a strong but localized group of rebels. They ran a campaign against Saleh’s corruption, and they were known for their anti-United States and anti-Israel stance. But their support was largely confined to the country’s Zaidi Shia population in the north. The Houthis and Saleh later formed a tactical alliance, with the latter aiding the former in capturing Sana’a in 2014. (In 2017, the Houthis ambushed and killed Saleh after he attempted to switch sides in favor of the Saudi-led coalition.)
Yet as Yemen descended into warfare, the Houthis became a highly motivated and formidable military force, capturing large amounts of land. Today, Houthis control two-thirds of Yemen’s 34 million people and a third of the country’s territory—land they took even in the face of an intensive bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The group has held on despite a dire humanitarian crisis and hundreds of thousands of civilian causalities.
The Houthis have triumphed, in part, thanks to Iran, which helped the militia develop sophisticated weapons and taught the group how to use them. The Houthis, in turn, began advancing Iranian interests across the region. For example, the group carried out several brazen attacks against Saudi and Emirati oil facilities. These strikes prompted Riyadh to de-escalate tensions, leading to a truce with the Houthis and a Chinese-brokered rapprochement with Iran in 2022.
The Houthis are certainly not puppets of Iran. The media descriptions that portray them as Iranian proxies overshadow the group’s agency. According to U.S. security officials, for example, Iran advised the group not to capture Sanaa, but in 2014, it did so anyway. With the substantial political payoff that comes from signaling support for the Palestinians, the Houthis may well have launched the Red Sea attacks regardless of Iran’s counsel. Similarly, the proxy narrative overstates Iran’s role, missing the Islamic Republic’s own limits as a patron. In their internal debates, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and analysts note that multiple political and militant entities across the Middle East reach out to Tehran, and that the government is unable to respond to many of them. The IRGC deepened its ties with the Houthis only after the group proved it was an effective battlefield force, much to the Iranians’ surprise.
But even if the Houthis are not Iran’s puppet, they are its partner. In addition to forcing the Saudis to seek a truce, intensified Houthi strikes on Israeli cities help divide Israel’s attention and forces, providing Hamas (another Iran ally) with breathing space. By opening a new front, the Houthis also increase the cost of any Israeli attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as the cost of bombing IRGC and Iranian-allied forces in Syria. And unlike with Hamas, Hezbollah, or various groups in Syria, the geographical distance between Israel and Houthi territory makes it hard for Israel to retaliate.
The Houthis have also helped Iran with its nonmilitary needs. Tehran is trying to impose a de facto economic blockade on Israel, and the Houthis are the centerpiece. The group has, most obviously, held up Red Sea shipments that involve Israel (although many of the ships it has targeted have little to no connection to that country). But it has also launched drone attacks against Israel’s Eilat port. These attacks have been largely intercepted, yet concern among shippers has led many to stop servicing the facility. As a result, Eilat has seen an 85 percent decline in its activities.
Officials in Tehran hope the Houthis can aid Iran even more. The country has been caught in a multiyear naval standoff with the United States, in which Washington routinely confiscates Iranian oil in international waters. Tehran has also had to contend with Israeli forces, which have attacked Iranian ships in the Red Sea. The Houthis can help Iran fight back against U.S. and Israeli naval operations. By partnering with the Houthis to retaliate against these states’ vessels, Iran can deter both countries from seizing its own oil and weapons shipments. In fact, such coordination is already underway. As a senior U.S. Navy commander told the Associated Press, Iran is directly involved in the Houthis’ recent naval attacks, including by funding, supplying, and training the fighters who conducted them.
For Iran, partnering with the Houthis has dangers. The tense standoff between the Houthis and the United States has pushed the region toward the brink, and there are hawks in Washington who are urging the Biden administration to strike IRGC forces and bases. Yet after decades of warfare across the Middle East, Iran is undeterred: concessions to Washington, Tehran believes, would only invite more U.S. pressure. As Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared in 2019, “whenever we resisted, we achieved a positive result.” Iran is poised to press ahead with the Houthis in the Red Sea, regardless of the risks.
HARD TO HANDLE
The Houthi-Iranian partnership is hardly one-sided. The group, too, has plenty to gain. Iran's drive to enhance its naval capabilities aligns with the Houthis’ own military aspirations, providing the group with a crucial advantage in acquiring more low-tech, cost-effective support for their agile forces in the Strait of Bab al-Mandab. The Houthis have demonstrated proficiency in utilizing Iran's expanding ballistic and drone capabilities, and Iran anticipates the group will be similarly effective in upping its naval abilities.
A stronger Houthi military will help the group at home. The more the Houthis can target ships and Israeli territory, the more they can enhance their standing among Yemenis. The Palestinian cause is wildly popular among Yemen’s people, and so by positioning itself as a powerful Palestinian ally, the Houthis gain credibility, including in areas outside Houthi control. This helps the group expand its influence, and it could aid the Houthis in capturing and unifying the rest of the country. There is a reason why the Houthis have repeatedly posted sleekly edited videos of their pro-Palestinian operations.
This strategy mirrors the Islamic Republic’s own modus operandi during the 1980s. The Iranian population was hostile to the United States and Israel, and so after winning the Iranian Revolution, Iran’s theocrats used anti-American and pro-Palestinian rhetoric—along the war with Iraq—to consolidate power. Iran also used these techniques to become a regional player, capitalizing on broader grievances toward its adversaries to forge alliances with local nonstate armed groups. The Houthis, too, believe their pro-Palestinian framing and anti-Israel operations will garner them international popularity and recognition, particularly in the Arab world. The group’s leaders contend that by pressuring Israel and the United States to agree to a cease-fire, they are enforcing the will of the international community.
For Washington, there are few good ways to undercut the Houthis’ strategy. The United States’ retaliatory strikes are unlikely to stop the group; in fact, they may empower it, feeding its claims that it is standing up to Israel and its patrons. U.S. attacks could also lead to escalation that engulfs the region and causes a global economic crisis. For these reasons, some U.S. allies, such as France, have hesitated to confirm their participation in the attacks. Saudi Arabia—Washington’s primary regional partner—has refused to join altogether. The United States asked China to partake in its security initiative. But even though it is heavily reliant on the Red Sea for commerce, Beijing declined. Given its own rivalry with the United States, China may not want to rein in attacks in the Red Sea, which distract Washington from operations in East Asia. Even if it did, China does not wield significant influence over Iran’s multifaceted axis of resistance.
Ultimately, the best way for the United States to try and stabilize the Red Sea is through swift diplomacy. If Washington can pressure Israel to cease bombing Palestinian civilians and facilitate humanitarian aid into Gaza, it will weaken the immediate pretext for Houthi operations. The United States may also be able to lower tensions by leveraging the region’s existing diplomatic infrastructure—an array of informal and formal communication channels between competing parties (such as talks that run through Oman)—to shore up the Saudi-Houthis truce. Washington should, similarly, work to preserve Riyadh’s agreement with Tehran.
The United States must try to contain its growing conflict with Iran, as well, namely by revisiting and updating the understanding it had with the Islamic Republic before October 7. According to that informal agreement, Iran limited its nuclear advances and reined in its partners in exchange for easing sanctions enforcement. As the Red Sea evolves into a potential long-term global conflict zone, Iran and the United States need to communicate rules of engagement to prevent direct clashes.
These are short-term steps to manage the regional conflict, designed to preserve stability until the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. Whoever wins will need a proactive, comprehensive policy that recognizes the central importance of the Palestinian cause to the Middle East and that addresses the game-changing Houthi-Iranian partnership in the Red Sea. But even this policy should be based on relentless diplomacy, rather than military strikes. Tehran wants the Houthis to draw Washington back into a cycle of hubris and humiliation, where the mighty United States works to punish ragtag militias only to eventually withdraw with its tail between its legs. The Islamic Republic and the Houthis, in other words, are laying a trap for Washington. U.S. officials must not fall into it.
MOHAMMAD AYATOLLAHI TABAAR is a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Associate Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, and a Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is the author of Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran.