The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted a webinar on 29 March, entitled, “A Strategic Proxy Threat: Iran’s Transnational Network”, which looked at the various aspects of the threat from the clerical regime in Iran.
Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemen analyst and herself a Yemeni, a non-resident scholar at MEI, began the panel with a look at the dominant Western narratives about the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen over the past six years, which have included:
- The Houthis as a Zaydi (“Fiver” Shi’a) Revivalist movement, provoked into being by the spread of Saudi-supported Salafism in Yemen;
- The Houthis originate in 2004 “because of [local] grievances”;
- The Houthis took Sana’a in 2014 “because of the government corruption and the decision to divide Yemen into six regions … without consulting with them”; and
- Some narratives depict Houthis as anti-imperialist or otherwise “a homegrown movement that is pragmatic in nature”.
All of these narratives, explains Al-Dawsari, are not only wrong; they are wilfully “misleading”. Far too much Western analysis of the Houthis has “distort[ed]” the truth “to the point of romanticising” the Houthis, “omitting historical facts altogether in order to downplay Iran’s role and the Houthis’ connection to Iran, and the purpose is to discredit Saudi concern about Iran’s threat to its southern border. This has been extremely damaging for Yemen as it took away attention from the hideous crimes that the Houthis have committed against Yemenis and put the blame on everyone else, except the Houthis for their violence. But that’s what happens when advocacy shapes research.”
(For further detail on the reality of the Houthis, see the recent report by AIJAC’s Oved Lobel published by EER.)
Al-Dawsari goes on to explain: “The Houthis are not a Zaydi Revivalist movement [and] they are not pragmatists. They are a radical Shi’a insurgency that is strongly driven by ideology, and they use only violence to achieve political ends.”
Moreover, “The Houthis are an Iranian proxy”, Al-Dawsari notes, “part and parcel of Iran’s expansionist agenda in the region. They are the result of forty years of Iran’s investment in Yemen”. An exasperated Al-Dawsari underlines this point: “Forty—four, zero” [emphasis original]. Al-Dawsari notes that one cannot but admire what Iran has pulled off with the Houthis, the degree of “commitment, strategic thinking, and patience” it took, and the willingness to keep providing training, support, advice, weapons, and money as needed.
Ideologically, Al-Dawsari reiterates, the Houthis are not a Zaydi Revivalist movement, they are “a cross between Jarudi and Shi’a Twelvers, thanks to Iran’s influence. The Houthi founder, Hussein al-Houthi, along with his father, Badreddine al-Houthi, who was a scholar, and his brother, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, who is currently the leader of the group, spent much of their time during the 1980s and 1990s in Iran. They studied in Qom.”
“During that [same] time as well”, from the 1980s to 1990s, says Al-Dawsari, “Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’as [connected to Iran’s Hezbollah movement] travelled to Yemen to teach at learning centres that were run by the Houthi family. Hussein al-Houth … was fascinated by, and became obsessed with, the Iranian Revolution. He made it his life’s goal to import it to Yemen, and you can see that in his lectures and statements.”
Where the Zaydi Revivalists had a local and domestic agenda in curbing the spread of Salafism, says Al-Dawsari, the Houthis had “a regional agenda”, namely “the ‘fight against the enemies of Islam’, America and Israel, which is in line with the Iranian Revolution”.
“The Houthis had a major disagreement with the Zaydi Revivalist movement on two core issues”, Al-Dawsari notes: “One: the Revivalists rejected the condition that the ruler should be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s family. The Houthi family insists that that should be a precondition for any ruler to be eligible to rule the Muslim umma (community). The second disagreement was that the Revivalists were peaceful in nature; the Houthis were violent in nature. In the early 2000s, … Hussein al-Houthi … hijacked, militarized, and radicalized the Zaydi Revivalist movement, pushing the original founders out.”
Turning to the second narrative myth, Al-Dawsari says: “In the years leading up to 2004, the Houthis stockpiled weapons, starting chanting in [favour of] the Iranian Revolution in local mosques, which is ‘death to America’, and that led to the six Saada wars.”
During the “Arab spring” phase in Yemen, after 2011, the Houthis took part in the national uprising and then participated in the National Dialogue after Ali Abdullah Saleh (nominally) surrendered the presidency that was supposed to work out a new compact for the country.
The problem, Al-Dawsari notes, is that the Houthis pocketed all the gains they could make from these peaceful, political moves—and “all the time continued to expand by force. … By 2012, they had captured the entire governorate of Saada, much of the northern governorates of Hajjah, Al-Jawf, and Amran”—and this is “before the National Dialogue Conference has even started”.
During the current war, Al-Dawsari documents, which began after the Houthis’ coup in Sana’a, “Iran has supported the Houthis. Hundreds of Houthis received military training in Iran and Lebanon from IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] and Hezbollah elements. Iran supplied Houthis with weapons and helped them develop missile technology and drone technology. They’re now striking hundreds of miles inside Saudi Arabia.
“Iran has also helped the Houthis with military strategizing: by 2015, dozens of IRGC and Hezbollah military advisers and experts were in Yemen helping the Houthis. IRGC commanders are present in Yemen, including [Abdul] Reza Shahla’i and most recently Hassan Irlu, who’s the ‘Iranian ambassador’ in Yemen—both are commanders in Iran’s Quds Force. The Houthis are part of Iran’s Axis of Resistance; it’s official, they acknowledge that, and are proud of it.
“Finally, I want to say that the war in Yemen did not bring the Houthis close to Iran. Framing it like that ignores forty years of Iran’s investment in the Houthis. The Houthis are close to Iran, they have been for decades, and are always going to be … it’s a strategic partnership, an ideological and political commitment that goes beyond Yemen.”
Michael Knights, the Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow at The Washington Institute (WINEP), where he focuses on military and security affairs relating to Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and the Gulf Arab states, spoke about Iran’s militias in Iraq.
Before he began his presentation on Iraq, however, Knights expressed interest in Al-Dawsari’s description of the history of the Houthi movement and noted that he had “recently been looking at [a report] that came out of the European Eye on Radicalization about ‘Becoming Ansar Allah’ that laid out” in considerable detail the much-neglected story of the Houthis’ long relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Analysts at WINEP have done extensive work mapping the IRGC-controlled Shi’a militias in Iraq (and Syria) already, and Knights announced an upcoming project that does further micro-analysis on how the Iraqi militias are communicating, using propaganda and disinformation, front groups to carry out “deniable” fronts, and the supposed schisms within the Muqawama (Resistance) groups to build up an evidence basis to allow for attribution of future attacks and appropriate retaliation, whether sanctions or otherwise.
Knights says that Iran’s Iraqi militias have been on a downward trajectory since September 2019, when they badly mishandled the protest movement in Iraq and destroyed much of the legitimacy they had built up on the basis of having the Islamic State (ISIS) as their enemy—and the enemy of the Shi’a community. The elimination of Qassem Suleimani and his Iraqi deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in January 2020, created problems for the “connective tissue” between IRGC and the Iraqi militias, Knights contends. And then there is the government of Iraq, which “is getting stronger, though is not strong”, but is somewhat “competitive” with the militias. Knights reiterates that the militias started from an extremely powerful position, so they have a long way to fall, and they could still begin a trajectory of recovery, but for now they are declining.
The central problem for the Muqawama militias, says Knights, is that with ISIS’s caliphate gone and the U.S. presence essentially invisible, they are now a Resistance with nothing to resist. Add to that the loss of Suleimani and Abu Mahdi, and the militias are somewhat being left to fend for themselves, Knights argues, especially since they do not have the same ability to understand by instinct what Iran requires since Suleimani was replaced by Esmail Qaani, who is less familiar with the militia leaders.
Knights says that detailed analysis shows that there are splits within even a group so disciplined as Kataib Hezbollah (KH) along personnel-patronage lines, which might well have been true at certain stages with Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s other militias, too, but can now be seen with KH and it is creating some problems. And these divisions within the IRGC militias in Iraq are even more notable between the various militias.
The main coordination body for the IRGC-run militias, the Tansiqiya, consists of three main groups, Knights says: KH, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN).
KH is closest to IRGC, says Knights, along with HHN, a group trying “to break into the big time”, and around them are splinters and affiliates like Saraya al-Jihad, which plays an important role in southern Iraq, especially with technology like missiles and drones, and Saraya al-Ashara, a key instrument for assassinations of anti-Muqawama individuals.
On the “other side”, according to Knights, AAH, is trying to have it both ways, to appear as more Iraqi, yet to get Iran’s attention by going beyond theatre in its resistance by attacking Americans—rather than Iraqi contractors—even at moments when Tehran is being cautious.
Knights says KH has now invested in “social operations” within Iraq—to capture the state more and more through non-military means, and to suppress civil society challengers through Basiji-like tactics—while doing “power projection” abroad against the Saudis and Turkey, leaving the issue of anti-American activity within Iraq more or less alone.
That said, Knights acknowledges that the Iranian hand continues to loom large, with these groups, yes, “being used for different reasons” inside Iraq, yet it all traces back to an expanding Iranian hold over the state and society. Even as Iran seems to be looking toward using its Iraqi militias against the Gulf states, this is an Iranian move: if these groups were local in orientation, they would have little interest in this foreign mission. And the Iranian hand is being hidden more and more effectively because these groups are being somewhat atomized to create “task-organised elements”: skilled individuals and cells are being peeled away and recombined in new, theoretically deniable formats.
Hanin Ghaddar, the Friedmann Fellow at WINEP focused on the Levant, discussed Iran’s role in Lebanon. In sum, Ghaddar said, Iran’s main instrument of control, Hezbollah, its first true success story in exporting the Islamic Revolution and the model for all militias that have come since, is “much more comfortable today, in Lebanon and in the region”.
Hezbollah has been expanded into a more regional actor than a Lebanese one, involved in every Iranian training, logistics, and even soft power mission in the Middle East—and beyond, says Ghaddar. The prominence of Hezbollah for Iran is that it is “the success story, and also the last resort”, the reliable entity that can step in as needed in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere when Iran’s other assets fail or come under pressure from Israeli attacks and so on.
Hezbollah has “transform[ed] the states that they work with, especially in Lebanon and Syria, from weak states to failed states and this is a challenge and a benefit”, says Ghaddar. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has solidified its political reach after the so-called elections, meaning it now owns the parliament and “whatever government” is unable to move forward with reforms or anything else. The Lebanese used to say that Hezbollah is a “state within the state”, says Ghaddar, but now there is a clarity: “Hezbollah is the state”.
Hezbollah has transformed Lebanon into a launchpad and base for Iran’s operations, says Ghaddar, who gives the example of the Beirut blast in August 2020: the ammonium nitrate that caused that explosion was brought into the city by IRGC, intended to help the Assad regime in Syria make barrel bombs, and Lebanon bore the cost of this regional play.
The international community has backed the regional tendency to “stability” over any risk of “change” or “reform”, says Ghaddar, but the problem is that continuing on the present path is creating instability, as well as avoiding much-needed reform.
Overall, all the analysts agreed that the Iranian regime has achieved a considerable level of control across the region, and in Yemen the Iranians have achieved perhaps their most powerful position, able to strike at their great rival in Saudi Arabia through the Houthis. In Lebanon and Iraq, there are cautious signs that the political trends are moving against Iran, albeit for now the hard power instruments of the clerical regime have no challenger.