The start and end of a piece at War on the Rocks by an excellent Canadian professor and analyst:
Since 2015, when Saudi Arabia launched its intervention in Yemen, the Houthi movement has deepened its ties with Iran and grown more powerful on the ground. As a result, the impact of the Iranian-Houthi partnership will increasingly be felt beyond Yemen’s borders. As I have argued elsewhere, the Houthis are now developing their own foreign policy, forming direct ties with other Iranian partners in the region and presenting a growing risk to rivals like Saudi Arabia and, eventually, Israel. In recent years, some of the most alarmist coverage of the Houthi movement has presented the group in simplistic terms as an Iranian proxy inside Yemen. In fact, the partnership is more complex than a patron-proxy one, but it still carries real risks for regional security.
A Mutually Beneficial Partnership
While the Houthi movement emerged as an insurgency in northwestern Yemen in the 1980s and 1990s, it most likely began receiving Iranian support around 2009. Yet this initial support was marginal, as Yemen at the time was far from an important priority for Iran. Relations ramped up after 2011 as street protests and elite infighting caused an already fragile Yemeni state to weaken even more. Exploiting this vacuum, the Houthis expanded their power and eventually took over the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. These evolving local dynamics piqued Iran’s interest: Saudi Arabia was increasingly anxious at the prospect of mounting insecurity on its vulnerable southern border, while the Houthis were becoming more powerful. Nevertheless, through 2014, Iran’s role in the growth of Houthi power remained limited.Become a Member
The major turning point came in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen, officially to roll back the Houthis and return the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to power. The intervention has since become an unmitigated disaster: It is a quagmire from which Saudi Arabia has proved unable to extricate itself, even as the Houthis emerged as the dominant actor in Yemen.
It is impossible to precisely quantify how much of the Houthi movement’s success is the result of Iranian support. A significant portion of Houthi assets have been generated locally: Large portions of their arsenal come from absorbing — by negotiation or coercion — units of the Yemeni military, as well as from looting national army stockpiles, forging alliances with tribal militias, and making purchases on the black market.
That said, growing Iranian support has certainly played an important role in helping the Houthis to become more powerful…
The Houthi movement’s role in this network of Iran-backed non-state actors has grown to the point that it is now possible to refer to Houthi foreign policy. Houthi-Hizballah ties have become particularly prominent, as the two movements increasingly cooperate in areas ranging from training to weapons smuggling. Yemen is also, according to some reports, increasingly used as a platform for Iran to send weapons to other armed groups it supports, most notably Hamas. In this case, weapons delivered to Yemen are transshipped to Sudan and then through Egypt to the Gaza Strip. There is also evidence that Iran and Iranian-backed groups are increasingly coordinating their information operations, for example in the immediate aftermath of recent missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi movement is now a regional power, demonstrating ever greater experience and skill as it pursues its interests in the region. The Houthis have emerged from Yemen’s civil war as an increasingly important element in the Iranian-led constellation of revisionist actors that surrounds Saudi Arabia and Israel. They also provide Iran with new options for targeting American forces in the Middle East. Houthi leaders will not attack Iran’s enemies solely based on orders from Tehran — that is not how their partnership functions. In a hypothetical escalation, the Houthi leadership would have to balance its multiple interests, notably the need to preserve Iranian support, the risk of American retaliation, and the politics of maintaining their position inside Yemen. Nonetheless, the Houthi’s newfound reach has enhanced Iran’s deterrence posture and its ability to project power — all at very little cost to Tehran.Become a Member
Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs [more here] and a former policy officer with Canada’s Department of National Defence (2003 to 2014). He tweets @thomasjuneau.
Plus those Saudis are tough cookies and Saudi infantry famously are not.
UPDATE: Note this tweet: