The Houthi Victory and the Iranian Threat

The Houthi movement has played an important role in Yemen’s political transition. Dr. Shaul Shay believes the recent Houthi seizure of the presidential palace and its control over the strategic Bab al Mandab straits will create a new geo strategic situation with Iranian control of two of the most important maritime routs

On January 20, 2015, after a day of heavy fighting between Houthi fighters and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's guards, the Houthis entered the presidential palace and put president Hadi under house arrest.

Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthis, has accused Hadi of "failing the Yemeni people" and disrupting the implementation of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA), which was approved after the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014.

In a televised speech just hours after his fighters' display of force, Houthi warned Hadi that he had to implement the power-sharing deal. "At this historic and exceptional point in time, when conspiracies have been plotted against the country, there is a great danger facing Yemen,” Houthi said. “Nothing will ever stop us from realizing the peace and cooperation treaty. We will not be scared by foreign powers, the issue is crucial.

The Houthis are demanding security solutions and reforms to the national decision-making body, and they reject the draft constitution that divides Yemen into six federal regions.

The Houthis appear to hold de facto power over the capital and most of the country after months of territorial gain that culminated in the capture of Sanaa last September.

On January 23, 2015, the president of Yemen has resigned along with his prime minister in protest of the takeover of the capital Sanaa by the Houthi rebels. President Hadi said he could not continue after the Houthis failed to honor a peace deal. Security sources have told that Yemen's intelligence chief, Ali Hassan al-Ahmedi, has also stepped down.

Houthi rebel figures publicly welcomed the resignation of the president with one proposing the creation of a ruling council.The council would include Houthi-led groups, Abu al-Malek Yousef al-Fishi was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Speaking to Iranian military commanders on September 22, 2014, prior to travelling to New York for the UN General Assembly, President Hassan Rouhani praised Yemen’s Houthi insurgents and said that although the situation in Sanaa remained volatile, events of the last few days amounted to a Shia victory — one in which Iran had played a crucial role. The statement confirmed Yemen's accusations to Iran of meddling in its affairs and backing the Houthi armed group.

After the takeover of the Presidential palace by the Houthi militants, Yemen will become the only country in the Arab world, apart from Iraq, where Shias hold power at the highest level. About 35 per cent of Yemen’s 26 million people are Shia Muslims, with Sunnis comprising almost all of the remaining 65 percent.

Background

The Houthis (who officially refer to themselves as “Ansar Allah”) are named after their former leader, Husayn al-Huthi, who was killed by Yemeni government forces in 2004. Basing himself in the mountainous west of Sa`da Province in Yemen’s northwest corner, Husayn al-Houthi combined Zaydi revivalism with sharp political criticism of both local and international actors, crafting a historically rooted discourse of justice and empowerment that resonated throughout the region. Husayn al-Houthi was able to create a strong network of devoted followers in Yemen’s north, where Zaydism remained strong despite the overthrow of Yemen’s Zaydi Imamate in 1962.

The manhunt that eventually killed al-Houthi unleashed a spiral of violence beginning in 2004 that became known as the six “Sa`da Wars.” The group transformed from a grassroots Zaydi revivalist network under Husayn al-Houthi’s leadership to a strong insurgent fighting force under the leadership of Husayn’s younger half-brother, Abdul Malik. By the sixth war in 2009, as Houthi fighters pushed the fighting beyond Yemen’s borders. In November 2009, the Saudi Arabian military intervened to support the Yemeni government in its fight with the Huthis. Three months later, the Huthis accepted a Qatari-negotiated cease-fire that teetered along during the following year.

Since February 2011, the Houthi movement has played an important role in Yemen’s political transition. The group has responded to the “Arab Spring” and in particular to the slow, negotiated toppling of Ali Abdullah Salah in Yemen. Since protests began in Yemen, the Houthi positions have aligned with those of the “revolutionary youth,” calling for the downfall of the regime and justice for its victims. As the central government’s focus turned toward the capital, state authority in Sa`da Province crumbled, allowing the Houthis to consolidate control over the administration of a province they had been contesting for over a decade. At the same time, the group has attempted to seize administrative control in areas where it only had a foothold, with mixed results.

Their critics accuse the Houthis of expansionist designs, specifically the creation of a “Zaydi State” or “Huthi Imamate” in Yemen’s northern provinces (Sa`da, Hajjah, ‘Amran, al-Jawf and Marib), which the Houthis themselves deny.

An Ally of Iran

The Houthis are seen as allied to Iran, the main Shi'ite power in the region and mortal foe of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. Their Zaydi Shi'ite sect is related to but separate from the sect practiced in Iran. The Saudi and Yemeni governments both accuse Iran of helping the Houthis. Iran, they say, has secretly supplied arms to the Houthis.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s leaders have sought to bring Shia communities in the region into its sphere of influence. Iran’s intentions in Yemen are twofold, supporting its vision of Shia expansion and helping to resolve its own political struggle with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has voiced his support for Shia insurgencies in Yemen and Bahrain and their clashes with Sunni-led governments.

Historically, the Islamic Republic has viewed Yemen as one of the region’s important Shia cornerstones, vital for its vision of uniting all Shias in the region. In the past decade, and particularly during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the increased power of the Revolutionary Guards, Tehran has increasingly focused on Yemen and especially the Houthi in the north of the country.

The Iranian strategy is reflected in the comments of senior Iranian officials:

The Supreme Leader adviser in IRGC, Mojataba Zolnour, said (in front of a clergy assembly) that Houthis’s victory in Yemen, represents the door to conquer Saudi Arabia.

Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij paramilitary force, called for the Islamic Republic to play an active role in Yemen and Bahrain.

Tehran MP, Alireza Zakani, said that the advancing revolution would undoubtedly spread to Saudi Arabia next. “A phenomenon more colossal than Lebanon is unfolding: Out of Yemen’s 20 provinces, 14 have fallen into the hands of revolutionaries and 90% of Sanaa has also fallen… With this, they have changed all the equations. After the victory in Yemen, surely it is Saudi Arabia’s turn since these two countries share a 2000 kilometer border. Besides, today, two million organized armed men are in Yemen… Today, the Islamic Revolution has taken over three Arabic capitals and in a while it will occupy Sanaa as well and the system to unify Muslims will become operational.”

Iran has welcomed the peace deal in Yemen, which can be considered as a victory of the Houthis. “Iran has always been a well-wisher for Yemen and supported unity, stability and peace in the country,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said on September 22, 2014, Press TV reported. She added that the agreement was reached as a result of the Yemeni people’s vigilance as well as the self-restraint of the government as well as political and social groups in the course of recent protests. “The continuation of consultation and participation of all the elite, parties, groups and political and social currents in the political process and the full implementation of the accord will restore security and stability to the country,” Afkham pointed out.

Summary

The resignation of the Yemeni president and his government is likely to plunge an already unstable country into uncharted territory. The rebels have publicly welcomed his resignation but it is not what they wanted.

The Houthi rebels are seeking to establish themselves as the dominant force in Yemen's northern highlands and to secure a larger share of power in a future federal government. The Houthis continue fighting to establish control over areas they see as in their natural sphere of influence and beyond. Over the past two years, the Houthis have moved far beyond their narrow sectarian origins. They have broadened their appeal beyond their traditional power base of Zaydi Muslims and in the process become Yemen’s dominant group.

The weakening of Hadi, a top U.S. ally, also undermines efforts by America and its allies to battle al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, which claimed responsibility for the attack on a Paris satirical magazine earlier this month. Washington has long viewed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as the Yemeni branch is known, as the global terror network's most dangerous affiliate. With no president and no government, there is also a fear that al-Qaeda's powerful branch in Yemen could make new gains from the political vacuum.

The Houthis' blitz in Sanaa and expansionist aspirations in central Yemen, where Sunni tribesmen dominate, also threatens to transform the current conflict into a sharply sectarian one, pitting Sunnis against Shiites.

According to Tehran MP, Alireza Zakani, the Houthis victory against the Sunni central government – backed by Saudi Arabia – was seen by Tehran as a big victory of the Velayat-e Faqih against Wahhabi ideology and Iran now controls four Arab capitals —Baghdad, Damascus , Beirut and Sanaa.

Houthi and Iranian control over the strategic Bab al Mandab straits will create a new geo strategic situation with Iranian control of two of the most important maritime routs from the oil reach Persian Gulf through the Hormoz straits and from the Gulf of Aden through the Bab al Mandab straits to the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

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