President Joe Biden has just passed 100 days in office, and two foreign policy issues that he has clearly prioritised are Iran and the war in Yemen. How the administration is conceptualizing the relationship between the two issues and how they should conceptualize that relationship is a contested issue, analytically and even more so politically.
To examine these issues and the potential options towards a better policy moving forward, European Eye on Radicalization brought together an expert panel.
The panellists are:
Oved Lobel: a Policy Analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), his research focuses on the geostrategic interplay of Iran, Russia, Israel, and Turkey in the Middle East. In March, he published an in-depth report for EER that examined and overthrew the myths that have surrounded Iran’s relationship with the Houthi movement.
Ari Heistein: a Researcher and Chief of Staff to the Director at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy, the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israeli strategy towards Iran, and the Yemen war. His latest report looks at the nature of the Houthis, specifically as it impacts Israeli security.
Fatima al-Asrar: a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI), where she specialises in transnational Shi’a militant movements, in particular the Houthis in Yemen, as well as the other contenders in that war and the broader dynamics of the conflict. Her most recent analysis examined the Houthis’ strategy amid a shift in U.S. policy.
Oved Lobel began by noting that the Western media coverage of the Yemen war has been highly misleading; the focus has been on the Saudi-led Arab Coalition and the purported American support for their intervention. This misses the real drivers of the war. And U.S. policy at the present time has been similarly divorced from reality.
Lobel suggests an analogy to demonstrate what has gone wrong with the Western approach to Yemen: it would be as if, in 2014, after the Islamic State (ISIS) has declared its caliphate, the U.S. had sent an envoy to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while foreswearing the use of force. The Houthis are missing from the picture in much Western coverage, yet it is they, an “ideologically uncompromising jihadi group that is trying to establish an Islamic state, that is what this war is about”.
In the areas the Houthis control, their nascent Islamic republic, they have matched ISIS for brutality, they just—like Iran’s other groups—do not advertise it, Lobel pointed out. And, again, this state is what the Houthis want, it is what they started this war for, and it makes nonsense of proposals for “ending” the Yemen war that emphasise withdrawing support from Saudi Arabia, whose intervention was defensive and defensible.
The reason that people can argue for pressure on the Saudis as the way to settle the Yemen conflict is, Lobel explains, rooted in a fundamental ignorance of how the war came about. In the conventional narrative, the Houthis are cast as part of a Zaydi Shi’a Revivalist movement, who reacted to marginalisation by the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh by rebelling for … something. Exactly what is often left hazy. And within this maelstrom after the Houthis rebelled, the Iranians saw an opportunity to needle the Saudis and created a tactical relationship with the Houthis, and all of this happened relatively recently. This story, where the Saudis in effect create a Yemeni Hezbollah by forcing the Houthis into the arms of Iran out of fears of a Yemeni Hezbollah, is “just not true”, says Lobel.
“The links between the Houthis and Iran go back [the Iranian Revolution] in 1979”, Lobel goes on. The Houthi movement’s founders, Salah Ahmad Flaytih and Badr al-Din al-Houthi, go to Iran in 1979, connect up with the Supreme Leader of the new Islamist regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and then take Khomeini’s ideology, wilayat al-faqih, back to Yemen with them, where they cultivate it throughout the 1980s, with the Iranian regime’s active guidance, step by step, following the evolution of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Having built up the Houthis, formally called Ansar Allah, including helping them create an armed wing, in 2004 Iran prompts the Houthis into “launching a jihad”, Lobel explains:
The current war is just an extension of that jihad. This war did not start in 2015 and this war did not start because of Saudi intervention and the Houthi-Iran relationship is not a result of this intervention. If you listen to what the Houthis have said about what they’re doing, they’re been very explicit. They do not view this in terms of Yemen, per se, and they do not view this as rebelling for any particular rights. If you look at their rhetoric, they view this as an overarching battle against Israel and America and its influence in the region, which includes the Gulf states, which they consider Zionist and American puppets.
U.S. officials have testified that the Saudis are engaging in peace talks over Yemen in good faith; the Houthis are not. The Houthis keep expanding every chance they get, Lobel notes, because their vision is one in which they destroy all of Iran’s enemies, first by establishing exclusivist rule in Yemen, then by expanding into Saudi Arabia and occupying the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and ultimately by pushing all the way up the coast of the Arabian peninsula to do away with the Jewish state and take control of Jerusalem.
In terms of where issues stand now, an oft-spoken-of concern is the alleged Saudi blockade on Yemen. Yet, as Lobel points out, this blockade is not restricting access for food and medicine, so plans for flooding the country with aid are not going to alleviate the suffering, absent changes in the political situation. “The main if not the only problem is”, as the United Nations’ own officials have pointed out, “this Houthi police state that is basically stealing all of the aid and making sure it goes to its loyalists, rather than the people who need it, and that is the primary humanitarian problem right now.”
Iran has outfitted the Houthis with advanced weapons, notably drones and missiles, and “you can’t compartmentalise” these problems, says Lobel. The pleasant-sounding idea of engaging in diplomacy rather than force ignores the fact that this has been Western policy for a long time, and it has not worked—nor can it work. “I just want to make sure that people understand these are not two sides fighting over material resources”, Lobel concludes. “You should think of the Houthis as a Shi’a Islamic State that is explicitly trying to expand past Yemen; it’s not just about Yemen.”
Ari Heistein opened by saying he agreed with Lobel that “in terms of the radicalism of the ideology, the extremism”, the Houthis were certainly comparable to ISIS, but “the Houthis have much better weaponry than ISIS ever had … there’s just no comparison” and the difference is that the Houthis have state support from Iran, while everyone in the world was against ISIS.
Heistein outlines the Israeli perspective on Yemen, which is to see the conflict through the prism of Iran and therefore they see the Houthis as the primary threat, with some secondary focus on the risks from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS.
The Houthi threat as viewed by Israel breaks down into essentially four components, says Heistein: (1) the risk of long-range fire directly onto Israeli territory; (2) the maritime threat from anti-ship mines and other things; (3) potential support for Palestinian militant groups and other anti-Israel actors, whether through the provision of weapons and training, or participation in the actual fighting; and (4) participation in or enabling of attacks abroad against Jewish or Israeli targets.
The fourth seems the least likely. Among other things, Heistein points out, when Hezbollah carried out its attacks on Jews around the world, such as on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), it was able to draw on a large and sympathetic Lebanese diaspora for logistical and other support. The Houthis have neither a large nor a sympathetic Yemeni diaspora to draw upon.
The first of these is the most serious, says Heistein, and there is no agreement how to deal with this precision missile issue. If Israel does nothing, the problem may grow. If Israel engages, it could get dragged into the “Yemeni quagmire unnecessarily or prematurely”, as Heistein puts it. In this sense, Yemen is just one component of a region-wide problem—seen in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, too—that Israel has in coping with Iran’s missile threat.
Overall, says Heistein, the Houthi ability to threaten Israel is “fairly limited” and does not seem to be a high priority—for the moment, but this could easily change. Israel needs to monitor the threat from the Houthis, whose extreme hostility to the Jewish state and indeed the Jews can be seen from their slogan: “God is Greater, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”. How and when this is to be operationalised remains opaque.
More broadly, Heistein concludes that he sees only two realistic futures for Yemen: unification of the state under the Houthis or partition. “Personally, I think, given what we know about the situation on the ground in Yemen, Israel should consider supporting—perhaps quietly—the partition of Yemen”, says Heistein. “I believe that having a rogue state with the fig-leaf of legitimacy is more challenging than dealing with a rogue state that the whole world knows is a rogue state.”
In this context, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) might be a “useful partner for promoting stability in a strategic location”, says Heistein: “The STC’s affiliation with the [United Arab Emirates] certainly appears to be a strong indicator that it is inclined towards promoting regional stability—the U.A.E. is obviously a country that is very much a status quo power and seeks to promote stability in the region.”
Fatima al-Asrar began by pointing out the disconnect between Yemenis and the international community when it comes to the war. For Yemenis, there is a confusion that the U.S. and the world system is siding with the Houthis, made all the more confusing by the fact that the Houthis openly hate the U.S. and regard their war in Yemen as primarily an anti-American campaign.
The mismanagement of the war in Yemen, and the perception of it within Yemen, is that it has enabled a violent non-state actor that is embedded within a “regional network of adversaries that supports a grand Khomeinist vision that the Islamic Republic of Iran is actively pursuing.”
The ideology of the Houthis and their relationship with Iran is really not taken seriously within the peace-making process, says Al-Asrar; it is either “underestimated or ridiculed”, and this is a major problem. When the Houthi rhetoric is acknowledged, it is dismissed as mere venting. And short-termism dominates Western decision-making: the Houthis appear manageable at this exact moment, so little is done—only once there is a catastrophe will serious action be taken. This imprudent tactical thinking is overmatched by the strategic, long-term thinking from the Houthis and Iran.
In Western discourse, Al-Asrar points out, the idea is prevalent that by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia, this is an intervention, and removing those weapons supplies will allow Western states to be morally cleansed of involvement in Yemen. But this is wrong, Al-Asrar complains: a decision to withdraw support from the Saudis—and to force them to pull back and allow the Houthis and Iran to take over everything—is every bit as much an intervention, and it is a more damaging one that supports the aggressor.
Al-Asrar underlined everything that Lobel said about where the Houthis come from: despite their some-time presentation as a “national liberation” movement, they are really just “another weapon for Iran”, nurtured over decades—politically, ideologically, culturally, militarily.
The crux, says Al-Asrar, is that the Houthis, on Iran’s behalf, want to prolong the war with Saudi Arabia as long as possible to make them pay as large a price, economically and politically in terms of global opinion, as is possible. The Houthis do not want peace, in other words. And as the U.S. and Iran once again negotiate over the nuclear deal, Iran can use the Houthis as a point of leverage.
There is perhaps no subject on which the disconnect between Yemenis and the rest of the international community is so wide as the issue of humanitarian aid, says Al-Asrar. The Houthis and Iran have been very skilled in getting the Western media and public to believe the humanitarian crisis is caused by Saudi Arabia, when this is not so. For Yemenis, this “aid narrative has been exploited” to try to force the Saudis out and allow the Houthis victory. The truth is that the Houthis stealing aid is the major factor in starvation, and this famine is politically targeted at the Houthis’ enemies. Yet, by a cruel irony, the Houthis have been able to create these hunger problems, then direct visiting journalists and television crews to the people who are suffering—and have this suffering used as a political weapon against the Saudis.
The paradox, Al-Asrar notes, is that when the international community provides humanitarian aid to the population in the Houthi areas, filling a gap the Houthis refuse to, it is in effect subsidising the Houthi militia’s war effort, since the Houthis are then free—having captured the state, and with it the revenue streams from the oil industry, Hudayda port, and the telecommunications system—to use all of that money for military activity, rather than having to devote money to meeting the basic needs of the people under their rule.
There is “zero accountability” for the Houthis at the moment, says Al-Asrar, and the United Nations will not take a firm stand for its own principles. Worse, the U.N. envoy has shown himself to be deeply culturally insensitive to the Yemeni context, using terminology that plays into the Houthi narrative of political and religious supremacy, their claim that their rule is God-ordained and absolute. This is part of a broader trend where the international community has a “lack of vision” for Yemen; they are willing to settle for a “negative peace”, an ill-thought-out cessation of hostilities that leaves a tyrannical party loyal to a foreign power in charge of a “theological state”.
In the question-and-answer session, asked how Western policy should change going forward, Lobel pointed out that a key component is to cease engaging the Houthis diplomatically on these terms; it is worse than pointless, it is legitimising the group and helping entrench their power, which is to say Iranian influence in Yemen. Both Lobel and Heistein agree that pressuring Saudi Arabia to scale back its operations is counter-productive, especially as the Houthis close in on the city of Marib; only the Saudis are currently blocking the Houthi advance. Heistein suggested that some support to the STC could be a way to create an alternative Yemeni authority that would, over time, undermine the Houthis by the force of its example. Al-Asrar stressed the need not to underestimate Iran’s influence in Yemen through the Houthis and to understand that the Houthis are a bargaining chip Iran uses as it negotiates over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Secession is a sensitive subject in general among Yemenis, Al-Asrar points out, but it is also a dangerous strategic proposal because it could well foster an alliance between the Islah Party, the local version of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Houthis, since both of them agree on a unified Yemeni state. Unlikely as such an alliance might seem right now, such things happen all the time in Yemen—it was, after all, former president Saleh who significantly assisted the Houthi advances in 2014-15, despite the fact it was Saleh the Houthis initially rebelled against and fought against from 2004 to 2012.
Al-Asrar pointed out that for reasons unclear the United Nations will not act to disarm the Houthis and has been lacklustre in enforcing the arms embargo; it is the small arms shipped to the Houthis that have been killing Yemenis in far larger numbers than anything done by the Saudi airstrikes. Stability, let alone democracy, are not possible while an extremist group, better armed than Al-Qaeda and ISIS combined, an Arabian Taliban with long-range missiles and drones, is in control of the state.
In terms of why the Yemen conflict is so distorted in the Western mind, all panellists agreed that there was an issue with a lack of information—a general problem because the country is so dangerous, so journalists and analysts have a difficult time accessing it, and a more specific one with the Houthis since Iran schools them in blacking out the atrocities and other aspects of reality that are uncongenial to their messaging. Lobel pointed to the fact that there is a deep strain of anti-Americanism on the Left of the political spectrum in the West, and when that combines with the lack of knowledge about what the Houthis are—other than that they oppose America’s allies—it leads to a reflexive sympathy. Al-Asrar echoed this and stressed the wilfulness, both of the misinformation the Houthis disseminate—there is a powerful Houthi lobby in the U.S., presented sometimes in humanitarian garb, sometimes in anti-Saudi colouring—and the acceptance of it by some leading members of Congress, who are using the Yemen issue for domestic American purposes.