By Arastoo Taslim, AIC Research Associate
During the “Arab Spring” of 2011, protests across Yemen called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation. After 33 years in office, Saleh abdicated power in February 2012 to his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, via a single candidate election. One of the groups both supporting the ouster of Saleh and rejecting his replacement were the Houthis.
Control over Yemen, March 2015
WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS?
The Houthis are a Zaidi Shia group which make up approximately one-third of Yemen’s population. Although the sect is defined as Shia, the beliefs of Zaidis are more in line with Sunni Islamic thought than Twelver Shi’ism found in Iran. For example, Shiites believe in the hidden Imam, the Mahdi, while Zaidis - like Sunnis - do not. This fundamental distinction dispels the notion of a deep-rooted religious connection between the Iranians and Houthis.
The founder and leader of the Houthis, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, was an important figure in 2004 in uprisings against the Yemeni government. He died in 2004 and the Houthi movement took its name after him. Having ruled for approximately 1000 years, the Zaidi rule in North Yemen came to an end in 1962 after an eight-year civil war. Since then, especially in 1994, 2004 and now, the Houthis have been fighting "for things that all Yemenis crave: government accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis and the end of Western influence.” The primary objective of the Houthi opposition is to establish a government with fair representation that is inclusive of Houthi leadership. The Yemeni government has accused the Houthis of trying to overthrow the government and the republican system in favor of an Iranian-style, theocratic government.
HOW DID THE CURRENT CONFLICT START?
After Saleh resigned in 2012, there was a power vacuum that was intensified with rising fuel prices as a result of Hadi’s cut to subsidies. The Houthis used this to mobilize support and, ultimately, as a casus belli. In 2014, violence erupted between the Houthis and the Yemeni army, and the Houthis seized control of Sana’a. They gained influence because of this and were able to establish an agreement with Hadi’s government that would include the government’s resignation, a reduction in fuel prices, and new elections. The Houthis also attempted to establish a new constitution which included a Peace and National Partnership Agreement. This new government consisted mostly of technocrats, lead by Khaled Bahah, a widely-respected former prime minister and independent. That this new government was technocratic in nature rather than partisan was lauded and promoted by the Houthis. In January 2015, the Houthis descended on the presidential compound in Sana’a with a list of demands. Surprisingly, Hadi’s administration quit, and the Houthis issued a constitutional declaration, placing power mostly in the hands of the Houthis. In February 2015, Hadi fled house arrest to Aden, declared it the new capital, invited embassies to reopen there, and retracted his resignation. The Houthis have since allied themselves with supporters of former president Saleh. The Saudi-led coalition has rejected the Houthis’ rise to power, and has led their aerial campaign in support of Hadi.
Iran’s role in the Yemeni conflict has been exaggerated. This is due in part to the false perception of a conflict fueled by sectarianism. While the Houthis are of the Zaidi Shia branch of Islam, the conflict is directly related to a perceived disparity in political representation. Ali Abdullah Saleh is a descendant of the Zaidi branch of Islam, but the Houthis were in favor of his resignation in 2011 during the protests. They have since allied with Saleh and his supporters in order to gain political traction. These maneuvers are politically, not religiously, driven. Moreover, Houthi ambitions are dictated by local concerns aimed at increasing their representation within the country. They are not currently driven, and have not been historically driven, by an Iranian agenda. Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations further clarifies the role of Iran:
“The Houthis are glad to have Iran's political support. They're glad to have some financial and military support. But when it comes down to it, it's not as if the Houthis were created by Iran, and further, it's not as if the Houthis are being controlled by Iran. This is a group that is rooted in local Yemeni issues, and its actions are fundamentally rooted in the decisions of its local Yemeni leaders.”
Even Ali Abdullah Saleh complained of Iranian meddling in Yemeni affairs while in office, but was not able to substantiate his claims with evidence. A leaked cable from Wikileaks reveals that, in 2009, Ambassador Stephen Seche informed the State Department that “Tehran's reach to date [in Yemen] is limited.” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abadollahian stated the official position of the Islamic Republic in April 2015:
“Iran is not interfering in Yemen at all and has no military forces or even military advisers for training affairs in Yemen. And what defense tactic the Yemenis adopt against the Saudi aggression is a completely internal issue.”
At the same time however, Iran is likely aware of its exaggerated role in the Yemeni conflict and is using it as a way to propagate its own strength. As political analyst Shahir ShahidSaless explains:
“Iran, then, is exaggerating its regional power and military reach to create a mystical stature aimed at solidifying the confidence of its grassroots supporters within and outside its borders — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — while muscle-flexing, and discouraging and pushing its domestic and international opponents onto the defensive.”
While Iran may benefit from this misperception of its role and influence in Yemen, Javad Zarif also proposed a four-point peace plan in April 2015 in hopes of putting an end to the conflict. The plan calls for an immediate ceasefire and cessation of foreign military attacks, humanitarian assistance, a resumption of national dialogue, and the establishment of an inclusive national unity government. The proposal was swiftly rejected by the Yemeni government, which labelled the plan a “political maneuver.” Western and Arab diplomats have also dismissed the Iranian plan, citing a need for a neutral peace broker.
Although Iran’s role in Yemen is exaggerated, it may have the leverage necessary with the Houthis - through limited funding and arms - to steer them towards an agreement. While their direct involvement in Yemen is limited, the Iranians are well aware of the influence that Hezbollah has had on the political aspirations of the Houthis. The Iranians have acknowledged this. In January, Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Shirazi of the IRGC stated:
“Years ago, Hezbollah in Lebanon was formed, followed in Iraq and Syria. Today in Yemen, too, we are witnessing the formation of Ansarollah [the Houthis], and in the future, all of these groups will be to enter the battlefield against the enemies of Islam and Muslims.”
Another member of the IRGC, General Hossein Salami, said “Ansarollah is a similar copy of [Lebanese] Hezbollah in a strategic area.”
SAUDI ARABIA'S ROLE
Saudi Arabia is especially concerned with Iran’s involvement in Middle East regional affairs, particularly in light of the recent nuclear deal. Leaked files from WikiLeaks from earlier this year suggest that the Saudis are willing to go to great lengths to spread their Sunni ideology and undermine Iran to a point of “obsession”. The ongoing aerial intervention in Yemen which started in 2015 - led by the Saudis at the behest of President Hadi with support from almost every GCC member state - substantiates that claim. The true objective of this Saudi-led campaign is to undermine Iranian influence. Unfortunately, by asserting their power against the perceived Iranian proxy, the Saudis are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, with 61% of Yemenis - roughly 16 million people - requiring some form of humanitarian assistance before the current conflict had even started. Moreover, almost half of the population suffers from food insecurity and malnutrition. Safe drinking and proper sanitation facilities are scarce, and 8.4 million people lack access to basic healthcare. Mohamed Elmontassir Hossein, Country Director of Yemen at the International Rescue Committee, described the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis in April 2015:
“In a country that imports 90 percent of its staples, the closure and targeting by belligerents of airports, restrictions on seaport access, and a prevailing climate of banditry have seen local food prices leap four-fold in some parts, and pushed the number of food insecure people up to over 12 million.”
As noted above, Saleh made claims of Iranian meddling while in office. According to leaked documents from WikiLeaks, Saleh’s battles against the Houthis were described by the US to be “dangerous and delusional”. He also sought Saudi support for countering the Houthis. In 2009, the US was concerned with Saudi and Emirati support for Saleh which they believed would aggravate sectarian and regional tensions. The US has likely decided to publicly laud the Gulf coalition against the Houthis so as to not alienate their Arab allies further than the nuclear deal has. However, based on the aforementioned US apprehension vis-a-vis aggression against the Houthis, the United States is likely more concerned about the coalition’s actions and its goals than it publicly admits.
- Immediate Ceasefire: With hopes that the dire situation in Yemen is once again ripe for negotiations to restart, there should be an immediate cessation of hostilities from all sides. This will help to establish trust at the outset of the negotiations which will follow the ceasefire.
- Power-Sharing Deal: Yemen is in need of a power-sharing deal. The National Dialogue Conference which concluded in January 2014 established a power-sharing agreement, but was eventually boycotted by Houthi leaders due to a stipulation in the agreement that divided Yemen into federal regions, as well as the assassination of one of their representatives. According to Jamal Benomar, the former UN envoy who mediated talks between the different major political Yemeni factions, there was substantial progress being made towards another viable power-sharing deal until March 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition began its aerial campaign. Benomar resigned the next month. To have seemingly fruitful negotiations spoiled at the eleventh hour is extremely frustrating for all parties. A neutral location in the region, like Oman, should host. Hadi needs to have a seat at the table as well as the Houthis. The major regional stakeholders - Saudi Arabia and Iran - should also be present. Iran and Saudi Arabia should also work with the United States, as an intermediary, to help keep hostilities at bay while negotiations proceed.
- US-Iran Cooperation: Since the United States and Iran have negotiated a nuclear deal, now is the time to further this cooperation into other aspects of Middle East security. The United States needs to reassure its Arab allies that the US still values its relationship with them. Moreover, the US also needs to make it clear that the Iranians could help to steer the Houthis toward the negotiating table. The Iranians can and should embrace the opportunity to do just this.
- The United States’ Role: The United States needs to keep boots off the ground, and planes out of the air. The US should help shape the diplomatic process by liaising between the Saudis and Iranians (and other parties), but it’s time for the major regional players to step up and take responsibility for regional security. ISIS and al-Qaeda pose a threat to Yemen and risk further destabilization of the region. Before these groups have the chance to capitalize on a fractured and impoverished nation and political structure, Saudi Arabia and Iran should encourage the establishment of a fair framework whereby all major parties gain representation, stability is restored, and national security is built to defend against extremist forces. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia need to have a sense of urgency when it comes to centralizing Yemen’s government and power structure. Battling extremist elements that will inevitably undermine any forthcoming agreement should and could be a point of cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States should help catalyze this.
- European Encouragement: The Europeans should also encourage a power-sharing deal, given the current level of mistrust felt towards the United States by the Saudis. Given the significant influx of refugees in Europe as of late, the Europeans should see this as a hopeful opportunity to mitigate another potential migration crisis.