Iran is transferring the know-how in ballistic missiles to Yemenis. Iran is also using Yemen as a testing ground for its missiles, including testing their accuracy and efficiency as well as their performance against the missile defense systems the U.S. has deployed in Saudi Arabia.
Houthis, officially “Ansar Allah”, are a Yemeni rebel group adherent to Zaidism, a branch of Shia-ism. Zaidi Imams ruled Yemen for 1,000 years until the 1962 revolution.
Houthi movement in early 1990 began as a cultural movement intended to counter the influence of Salafism and Wahhabism, both branches of Sunni-ism, and end the political and economic marginalization of Yemen’s Zaydi population.
The movement turned to arms in year 2004 on grounds of self-defense when the first war with the government of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh erupted. Houthi’s founding leader, Hussein Al-Houthi, was killed during the war.
What started as the theological movement preaching peace now find themselves at the center of a wider regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Houthis, rather than acting as an indigenous movement, are now playing in the hand of Iran. Recently Houthi rebels, with greater Iranian assistance, have escalated their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Iran is providing Houthis with variety of rockets and missiles to develop them into a force similar to Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbolla, the most powerful Arab Shia (Shiite) force in the region. Houthis unfortunately fails to realize that Iran is not interested in seeing Yemen in peace and prosperity. Instead, Iran is helping Houthis with the intention to create a proxy force [of never-ending chaos] in Arabian Peninsula.
Many analysts argue that unlike Hezbolla, the Houthis are not organically linked to Iran. In this regard, it’s worth noting that even Hezbolla did not start in Lebanon as an organized Iranian proxy the way they are functioning today. Various already existing groups (Amal, Palestinian factions, Daawa party, etc.) stemming from different backgrounds had organized themselves under Hezbolla (which is Arabic for “the Party of God”) with the courtesy of Iranian increased support and strategical planning. Hezbolla can now best be described as extension of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Iranian approach in Yemen mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese proxy Hezbolla. Iran has two arch rivals in the region. The first is Israel and the second is Saudi Arabia. While Hezbolla is strategically positioned to confront Israel on its door step, Iran wishes to have a powerful proxy on Saudi Arabia’s door step by strengthening Houthis in Yemen.
Hence, Iran can bleed its rivals in their home anytime with the help of its proxies, Hezbolla and Houthi.In the process, Iran is avoid any direct confrontation with its rivals, which are being engaged through Iranian proxies. Moreover, supply of missile and other military support to the Houthis means greater Iranian pressure on Saudis (and drain their resources) with very little cost.
Although Iran was not providing substantial assistance to Houthis during the initial stage of the ongoing Yemeni conflict, recently Iranians have started sending significant resources to Houthis. Iran has provided the Houthis with various light-arms like AK-47s, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and Iranian copies of American and Russian antitank weapons.
It has also equipped the Houthi insurgency with suicide boats and drones as well as road side bombs which is used by Iranian proxy Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq.
What has garnered the most publicity however, is Iran’s role as force multiplier for Houthi missile capabilities. Given the fact that Yemen has no known history of producing its own ballistic missiles, let alone extended range Scud versions, the emergence of the Qaher and Burkan missiles appears to support the claims made by the Saudi-led coalition and US officials that Iran is extensively involved.
In addition to this, Houthis use a number of short range Iranian missiles and rockets most notably Borkan-1, Borkan-2, Qahir and Zelzal-2 missiles. None of these missiles is known to have existed in the Yemeni arsenal before the conflict.
Iran is not just sending weapons, but also transferring the know-how in ballistic missiles to Yemenis.
Iran is also using Yemen as a testing ground for its missiles. The Iranian advisers who are helping the Houthis to operate various kind of missiles system are basically testing their accuracy and efficiency as well as their performance against the missile defense systems the United Stated has deployed in Saudi Arabia.
The greater Iranian support to Houthis is not surprising. What’s rather surprising is that the Houthis, who claim they are fighting to liberate Yemen (in name of Yemeni nationalism), have blindly chosen to take orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, even when these orders completely contradict their agenda.
Now Al Houthis are a mere tool in the hands of the regime in Tehran, which can use the Houthis anytime to serve its regional aspirations. Iran has always taken advantage of chaos in any country in which they created proxies like- Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Hence, Iran will never let Yemen be stabilize. Iran has interest in keeping Yemen as a failed state so that they can control it through its proxy forces.
For its part, the Houthis have to do some introspection and find out whether they are a real nationalist movement or a mere Iranian proxy.
Manish Rai is a Columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.