Tehran’s Dangerous Yemen Game

By April 23, 2018

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 807, April 23, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: An integral part of its sustained drive for regional hegemony, Tehran’s backing of the Houthis in Yemen, like its support for Syria’s Assad regime, is to build naval bases, gain control of strategic international waterways, terrorize Sunni populations, and turn local Shiite forces into its own private paramilitary groups to be used in special operations and terrorist attacks around the world. The Houthis are following Iran’s Hezbollah model and have gained the world’s sympathy through propaganda even as they engage in ruthless attacks on civilians both at home and in Saudi Arabia. 

Yemen plays an important role in Tehran’s plan to dominate the Middle East, with the effort to establish a land corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq and Syria mirrored in a parallel drive to gain control of the strategic Bab al-Mandeb strait through sustained support for the Houthi rebels in a protracted war that has exacted massive civilian casualties.

This war has reached a military stalemate between the Arab Coalition (which includes the Saudi-backed Yemeni government security forces and the Anti-Terror Quartet, or ATQ, which consists of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) and the Houthis. Tensions have been exacerbated by internal differences involving Riyadh’s backing of the Hadi government vs. UAE-backed separatist groups. These tensions have threatened the government and made the job of the allies even more complicated.

The US and Britain have been providing the Arab Coalition with logistical and intelligence support, but otherwise have contained their own participation to battling ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni terrorist organizations.

The differences among the Arab allies are strategic. Whereas Saudi Arabia’s focus, for example, is on preventing the existential threat from the Houthis that arises from territorial incursions, ballistic missiles aimed Riyadh, and border security, the UAE is more concerned about Islamists. As a result, the two states have been backing different local groups that sometimes have divergent agendas. UAE forces are more battle-hardened and have had more impact on the ground; the Saudi military is well equipped but has little combat experience. Much of the three-year war against the rebels has focused on air strikes, but given Yemen’s terrain, that strategy has proven quite limited in achieving the goals of the Coalition. Currently the operation is at an impasse.

The Houthis, who assassinated Saudi ally and former Yemeni President Saleh, have utilized these divisions to their own advantage. They have been able to exploit intra-coalition divisions that keep the ATQ distracted and unable to focus on the main goal at a time when every day matters. The Houthis, though not even close to the Saudis in terms of equipment, have utilized guerrilla tactics to keep up the impasse and drain the Saudis of badly needed money, resources, and international goodwill at a time when the Kingdom, which is going through a difficult economic overhaul and other internal and external reforms, is being scrutinized by the entire world.

Despite their own internal differences, which have prevented them from advancing quickly, the Houthis have benefited from increasingly sophisticated weapons either supplied directly by Iran or assembled locally using Iranian models.

The Houthis are waging war on two fronts. First, their aim is to physically breach the Saudi border, which is surrounded by an electronic security fence. Whether or not that fence can be disabled from a distance remains to be seen, but borders overrun by well-armed guerrilla groups are in and of themselves a significant threat.

Breaching the wall would, however, be but a distraction. Far more dangerous is the likelihood of the Houthis’ using sophisticated weaponry to fire missiles into Saudi territory with a much higher degree of precision. The Houthis have benefited greatly from the smuggling of weapons through Oman. At the same time, and despite a naval blockade by the ATQ, they have managed to procure a great many shipments from Iran through Somalia and other routes.

Second, the Houthis have been waging a very successful propaganda war that plays off international confusion over the complicated ground campaign in Yemen. They have focused the world’s attention on Saudi airstrikes while entirely omitting their widespread war cimes, such as the use of child soldiers, their positioning of Houthi troops in hospitals and schools, their use of civilians as human shields, their abuse of religious minorities, and their merciless use of missile strikes against “adversary” civilians in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And while Riyadh has taken responsibility for its mistakes, including the inadvertent failure to strike precisely at an enemy skilled in guerrilla warfare and able to use Yemen’s terrain to cause the greatest damage, the Houthis have issued no apologies for their ruthless tactics.

It was the Houthis, not the Saudis, who first imposed a humanitarian blockade against Yemen. They then used humanitarian aid shipments to their own population as a disguise for smuggled weapons, which ultimately led to many deaths from starvation. The Saudis were forced to impose their own naval blockade as a defensive measure to counter ballistic missile strikes and increased attacks on the Coalition on the ground – yet the Houthis have succeeded in painting the Kingdom as the villain.

In response, the Saudis have changed a number of high-level military posts, including the top commander, with a view towards maximizing efficiency and minimizing civilian suffering. For the Houthis, such a strategy connotes weakness, not strength. They will continue to use sophisticated propaganda disseminated through Western outlets to decry alleged Saudi cruelty, all the while employing crude, outdated stereotypes and outright fabrications.

In addition to portraying the Saudis as monstrous, self-interested baby-killers, the main thrust of the widespread, tenacious, and largely successful pro-Iran propaganda campaign in the West – through both traditional and social media, and even in Congress – has been to get the US out of Yemen. Allegedly, US logistical and intelligence assistance to the Arab coalition prolongs “needless suffering” among civilians and somehow promotes alleged human rights violations by the Saudis. If only Washington were to stop backing the Coalition, the Saudis would be forced to withdraw, and peace and prosperity would immediately prevail throughout all of Yemen.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Houthi rebellion preceded Saudi airstrikes by many years; was armed, not peaceful; used the same violent methods as during the war with the Saudis; spared no civilians; and caused both unprovoked missile strikes against Saudis and high civilian casualties in Yemen before Saudi Defense Minister and now Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was ever in a position to take any action in Yemen.

Deceptive campaigns have gotten as far as the US Senate, however, where three senators of diverse political backgrounds were misled into supporting a resolution that called for the withdrawal of all support to the Coalition. Their reasoning was that first of all, Congress neither declared war nor authorized the Trump administration to engage in formal warfare; and second, the AUMF from 2001 does not extend to new Shiite threats in Yemen, which were not yet an issue for the US at the time. The resolution was defeated on technical grounds, but is soon coming up in its House iteration for yet another vote. The propagandists continue their attacks through press conferences, media frenzy, and online vilification of both the Saudis and the US.

As Senator Ted Cruz has pointed out, this argument has no legal merit. There are no US boots on the ground, so the constitutional requirement for declaration of war has not been triggered. Also, Washington has outstanding obligations to its allies. If it fails to fulfill them, the humanitarian situation on the ground will likely worsen.

None of that has inhibited the propagandists from lobbying and spreading disinformation and biases. A growing sense of isolationism in both political parties is a serious concern, as it is a victory for Iran apologists and agents of influence in the US media and non-profit worlds. Despite Secretary of Defense Mattis’s public praise of Riyadh for its $1.5 billion humanitarian package to Yemen (contrast this to none at all from Iran or the Houthis), rumors of Saudi savagery speak louder than actions to those already predisposed to be skeptical of any action by the Kingdom.

For anyone familiar with the story of the Houthi rebellion, such cynical abuse of Western kindness and concern over civilians at the expense of a more humane adversary should come as no surprise. The Houthis’ political and military strategy follows a successful model – Unit 3800 of Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

Tehran has been involved with the Houthis in Yemen since at least as far back as 2009, when then-President Saleh publicly accused Tehran of supplying the rebels with weapons and money. In mid-2014, a group of Hezbollah operatives was arrested in Yemen for training Houthis, even as Iran was becoming increasingly invested in Hezbollah as its main subversive tool in its quest for regional domination. Unit 3800 was itself modeled after Iran’s subversive al-Quds Force, which combines combat, espionage, and propaganda skills.

In many of their methods of causing disruption, sowing chaos, antagonizing opponents, and engaging in widespread character assassination and defamation, Houthis and Hezbollah operatives operate from the same Iranian playbook – one that can be observed anywhere in the Western world where Iranian operatives have embedded themselves in public institutions. Yemen, however, is a special case. It constitutes both a practice run and a backyard from which Tehran can access the Gulf States, its chief regional rivals.

The stakes here are high and numerous. Endangering the Saudi kingdom’s physical security is but one of the Iranians’ goals. Their wish to control significant portions of Yemen, if not the whole country, also reflects their desire to monopolize the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait (an effort that mirrors similar attempts in Syria) and thereby be in a position to threaten the safe passage of all international vessels attempting to reach Djibouti and the Horn of Africa. Tehran is building a naval base in Yemen; creating new routes for smuggling; and mobilizing Houthis into yet another standing semi-formal army that can be called upon for military or terrorist operations anywhere in the world at any time.

An Iran-backed takeover of Yemen is thus not only a Saudi concern. It represents a serious threat to global peace and security.

Another unwelcome byproduct of Tehran’s destabilization of Yemen is the growing involvement of Russia, which is both Iran’s ally and its competitor for influence. In both Syria and Yemen, Moscow – on the coattails of Tehran – is seeking to become a legitimate power broker, and has managed to do business with all sides.

Russia was present in Yemen before the Saudi involvement, and might, in fact, have been an additional instigator of the rebellion. Improbably, it maintained a diplomatic presence in both Aden and Sana’a throughout the war, even after the imposition of the humanitarian aid blockade. Whether or not Russia has played any role in facilitating Iranian weapons transfers to the Houthis has yet to be investigated. What is clear, however, is that the Houthis are gaining access to a more and more sophisticated crop of weapons and are growing more dangerous by the minute.

With the help of a swarm of drones, for example, the Houthis were recently able to take out UAE’s Patriot system in central Yemen. Moreover, the missiles the Houthis have been firing at the Saudis bear a striking similarity to Iranian ballistic missiles, as UN Ambassador Haley’s presentation of debris recovered from the Kingdom in December showed. Furthermore, as a report by Conflict Armament Research shows, Iran has been supplying Yemen with IEDs disguised as rocks. Similar IEDs were recovered from an Iran-backed terrorist cell in Bahrain and from Hezbollah attacks on Israel, among other instances.  They are likewise consistent with similarly disguised IEDs recovered in Lebanon and Iraq. They bear similar circuitry and other technical features as weapons recovered from the Jihan 1 Shipment to Yemen, which is known to have been orchestrated by Iran.

Ambassador Haley had tried earlier to work with the UN Security Council to sanction Tehran for its supply of weapons to Yemen, but those sanctions were vetoed by Russia.  Moscow stood by its new international ally, which in turn supports its position in Syria. Russia justified its veto by claiming that the Houthis do not answer directly to Tehran, and that there is no solid evidence linking Iran to the missiles fired by the Houthis – only circumstantial evidence via what might be coincidental similarities. It also claimed that the Yemen war is merely a dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia and thus not a threat or concern to anyone else.

Some experts have been reluctant to recognize Tehran’s involvement in supplying the Houthis. To counter this, Michael Knights has suggested that the Arab Coalition should supply more detailed and speedy evidence of any connections between Houthis and Iran to UN experts, while the Western allies should deploy experts to Yemen to assess the threat from these weapons and make appropriate determinations concerning their origin.  He also called for the Arab Coalition to expedite the deployment of US-made counter-IED technology and advised the US and other Western allies to supply the Coalition with all data necessary to counter IEDs and quickly determine their origin.

While these discussions were taking place, Houthis fired seven more missiles in the direction of the Riyadh and other airports, killing one in Riyadh (for the first time) and wounding two others with shrapnel. All the casualties were Egyptian nationals. The Saudis were able to intercept the missiles, but the Patriot system malfunctioned. It is not yet clear whether this was the result of a technical problem or electronic warfare by the Houthis with Iranian help. Meanwhile, the Arab Coalition shared evidence of missile debris that turned out to be an Iranian-made Qiam missile.

An increasing weight of evidence points to direct Iranian involvement in the supply of Houthis with ever more sophisticated weapons that present a viable and existential threat to the Saudis. For now, the Houthis are focused on gaining ground in Yemen and on antagonizing their adversary next door. However, there is no telling what the future holds with regard to their launching of possible attacks against other allies. Clearly, a great deal more must be done to stave off Iranian influence and limit the Houthis’ options.

The following are necessary approaches:

  1. As Knights suggests, the Western allies should increase logistical and intelligence support.
  2. Ambassador Haley should work with US Congress to levy palpable sanctions against Iran for its supply of weaponry to the Houthis, and other Western allies should do the same in their own parliaments.
  3. The US should dedicate time and effort not only to training Saudi troops in basic ground operations but also to improving their counter-missile capabilities and other defensive measures.
  4. All allies should blockade suspected shipments of arms at their sources long before they reach Oman, Qatar, or other friendly ports of call at which they can easily be disguised and make their way to Yemen.
  5. The Arab Coalition should become more proficient not only at asymmetrical warfare, but also at disruptive covert intelligence tactics. This would exacerbate divisions in Houthi ranks, separate the Houthis from the Iranians, and destabilize Iranian positions all over the region to such an extent that Tehran would no longer be inclined to engage with the Houthis or other groups.
  6. The Arab Coalition should respond cogently to the information warfare campaign waged by pro-Iran proxies by displaying compelling visual evidence of their own humanitarian efforts and Houthi human rights abuses. This effort should be aimed at improving their own image while undermining enemy morale.
  7. The Coalition should work closely together, and with Western allies, to present a holistic picture of Iran’s activities in the region. It can do this by showing evidence of the similarity of operations across all the countries Iran touches, either directly or through its proxies. The Saudi Ambassador to the US is off to a good start with his tweets, but tweets accusing Iran of supporting terrorism in various countries, including the AMIA bombing in Argentina, are not clear, visual evidence. They are assertions that need to be proven.
  8. The Saudis in particular need to engage directly with the Yemeni public, including Houthi civilians, in a way that makes their authority undeniable and their own concerns meritorious and legitimate in the eyes of those most directly affected by the course of war. The Saudis need not remain cornered by the abusive and demonstrably false attacks by Iranian proxies. They can and should adopt a proactive, creative, and multifaceted approach to combating and eradicating the Iranian threat in all its forms.

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Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney based in New York. She has written extensively on geopolitics and US foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli, and other international publications.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family