The Trump administration’s call for renewed peace negotiations to end the Yemen conflict, the subsequent decision to end refueling support to the Arab Coalition aircraft, and indications that the hitherto unreliable Houthis may actually attend negotiations have all ignited hopes that a diplomatic solution to the tragic Yemen conflict may be possible. For the Yemeni people, peace cannot come too soon as famine and cholera threaten millions. But if the world argues that the conflict cannot end until the Saudi-led coalition ceases its operations, there needs to be a corresponding demand that Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah do not exploit this situation to build a long-term proxy presence along the Saudi border and the critical Red Sea corridor.
Even Saudi critics admit that Riyadh’s concerns over Iran are justified, although some argue that Tehran’s interest in Yemen will wane when the conflict ends. On this point, there is no evidence to support such optimism. In the near term, Tehran’s protection of Houthi interests will hamper the establishment of Yemen’s state institutions and complicate the badly needed regional aid program for Yemen just as its support to other surrogates has hampered such programs in Syria and Iraq. In the medium term, maintaining an Iranian presence in Yemen will give Iran’s Quds Force the ability to influence another regional chokepoint critical to global economies as well as a platform to resume surrogate operations against the Kingdom at will. Saudi future options will be few, in part because Iran routinely embeds its surrogates among civilian populations. It is not inconceivable that Riyadh would find itself in the same position as Israel vis-à-vis Lebanon: a land invasion to remove a surrogate threat will come at such extreme cost to local inhabitants that such a step is deemed to be almost too costly to consider.
The nature of Iran’s relationship with the Houthis has long been debated, and some observers argue that Saudi and Emirati concerns over Iran are either inflated or a red herring to distract attention from their own intervention in Yemen. Despite the secrecy associated with Iran’s efforts, unsurprising Houthi and Iranian denials, and the difficulty of obtaining on-the-ground evidence of Quds Force operations, it has gradually become apparent that the relationship has been deeper than doubters supposed and reflective of Iran’s persistent post-2011 campaign to develop and sustain new partners in the region. Yet even today, Iran’s role in Yemen doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. The recently-proposed congressional legislation to press for an end to the war in Yemen punishes Saudi Arabia without even mentioning Iran.
In developing an approach to address Iran’s long-term ambitions in Yemen, it may be useful to consider five characteristics that dominate Tehran’s relations with the Houthis:
- Iran’s relationship with the Houthis has never been sectarian.
Observers correctly note that Iran and the Houthis do not share the same version of Shi’a Islam. The Houthis’ Zaidi practices arecloser to Sunni Islam than to Iran’s brand of Twelver Shi’ism. But this fact is essentially irrelevant to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard activities. Iran’s regional operations routinely involve Sunnis (e.g., Hamas, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and elements of the Taliban), as well as Shi’a followers (e.g., the Alawites of Syria), who follow a different form of Shi’a Islam than that practiced in Iran.
- Iran successfully exploits opportunities, but its approach aims at the long game.
Since the Arab Spring, the Quds Force has aggressively worked to identify and develop new long-term partners. For recipients of Iranian support, Tehran is often the only possible source of assistance, and Iran’s aid (e.g., funds, weapons, training, media support) can have a significant impact on a group’s battlefield or political circumstances. The pace of Iran’s provision of advisors, training, and increasingly advanced weapons, including advanced missile technology, radar, IEDs, and UAVs, reflects battlefield requirements and the capacity of its logistics and training channels. But this is not the sort of support one provides and forgets. Rather, it is the type that tests recipients and builds long-term relationships. Those who argue that Iran may be willing to depart Yemen should be asked to identify another proxy it has abandoned since the revolution.
- Absolute control over proxy actions has never been a common element in Iran’s regional proxy relationships.
Iran maintains relations with a spectrum of proxies in the region who represent an array of capabilities and disciplines. Tehran’s ability to control the day-to-day actions of these groups therefore varies widely. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the number of personnel Iran has employed abroad are comparatively few and must oversee operations over wide and difficult terrains. Second, and more important, “control” in a Western sense is likely not deemed critical to the relationship. Unless a surrogate’s operations threaten Iran’s equities, Iran seems comfortable allowing surrogates a large degree of local autonomy. Iran’s support appears designed to enable proxies to achieve dominance of their local battlespace and escalation options, battlefield requirements as well as to nurture ideological compatibility with core elements. The Houthis seem to fit this paradigm perfectly.
- Iran’s ability to nurture surrogates is in direct proportion to the size of its logistics pipeline.
Iran’s regional activities are defined by the reach of the Quds Force and the extent to which it can deliver training, funds, and weaponry. Access to Iraq and eastern Afghanistan requires only a long truck ride. Syrian and Lebanese operations are dependent on Iran’s civilian and military aircraft. With the closure of Sana’a airport, Iran’s ability to ship personnel and weapons to the Houthis requires either passage through Oman or use of Red Sea ports. As the Arab Coalition considers how to respond to post-conflict scenarios which would leave the Houthis in control of any major air or sea port, they would be well-advised to consider what they would do if the Houthis simply officially invited Iran to openly send aid and advisors. Quds Force logistics would be assured, and Iran’s foreign minister would reject any international complaints much as he does in regard to Iran’s continued presence in Syria.
- Finally, Iran has successfully established a working relationship between the Houthis and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Iran’s use of Lebanese Hezbollah in Yemen comes as little surprise. The use of Hezbollah in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as to train Bahraini militants, offers linguistic advantages and limits the exposure of Iranian personnel to threats. Within Yemen, it appears that Hezbollah is responsible for ground operations, with the Quds Force handling missiles and UAVs. Hezbollah’s long-term relations with the Houthis will remain dependent on Tehran’s direction, but the future of this connection receives too little attention by outside observers.
The need to avoid Iran’s involvement in political talks.
- The View from Tehran.
Any peace talks with the Houthis will likely be lengthy and some will argue that Tehran should be asked to join the talks in order to use its influence to bring the Houthis to an agreement. This would be a mistake. It is widely acknowledged that Iran’s foreign ministry plays little role in Iran’s relationship with Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Instead, the Quds Force dominates Iran’s relations with these countries.
When Tehran does involve its foreign ministry in regional issues, its role has been to shield Quds Force operations and those of its allies. But beyond that, Iran’s strategy in the region has been to change the political architecture to alter the status quo and transform failed states into environments more malleable by Tehran at the expense of regional Sunni states. Iran’s Foreign Ministry openly used its presence in Syria talks for this reason. Those who suggest Iran may be a potential partner in a Yemeni political solution should recall how Tehran rebuffed efforts to disperse Shi’a militias in Iraq and likewise used diplomatic talks on Syria to cement its long-term presence in Syria.
Although Saudi and Emirati operations may have prevented Iran from building a greater presence in the country than it has achieved to date, Tehran has been able to attack the Saudis heartland repeatedly at relatively little financial and diplomatic cost. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard will likely fiercely argue that Iran should not simply walk away from a strategic geographic position that requires so little expenditure. Iranian elements would be positioned along the relatively porous eleven-hundred-mile border with Yemen and within only a few hundred miles of Mecca itself. Similarly, Houthis leadership will likely make a strong case as to why they deserve continued Iranian support.
Indeed, as Iran seeks to develop new pressure points to respond to renewed U.S. sanctions, its ability to exploit Yemen’s geography will become more important. Located along the southern Red Sea corridor and Bab al-Mandeb strait, Iran would be able to threaten to block the five million barrels of oil that pass each day through the twelve-mile-wide strait.
A continued Iranian role in Yemen would not be expensive for Tehran. Provision of training and off-the-shelf weapons puts little pressure on Iran’s budget, and even with renewed sanctions, the Quds Force should be able to maintain cash payments to the Houthis that appear modest in comparison to Iran’s support to other proxies that Tehran maintained under the previous sanctions.
- An Iranian presence in Yemen will complicate future aid programs.
Even if negotiations were to succeed, Yemen will require years of international support to feed its population, to restore state institutions and local security forces, maintain and improve its infrastructure, to knit together the disparate militias and North–South groups that make up its current political architecture, and to continue to confront Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. None of this will happen without significant support from Gulf countries. Just as they are loathe to fund Syrian and Iraqi reconstruction for Iran’s benefit, it will likely be similarly unworkable to seek the broad program the Yemeni people require unless Iran is removed from the equation.
- The limited influence of the United Nations regarding Iran.
The United Nation’s role regarding Iran will be limited by the fact that Russia has repeatedly blocked Security Council resolutionscondemning Iran for its involvement in Yemen. Indeed, with Syria as a guide, it is likely that the two countries will seek to leverage each other in any talks: Moscow using Tehran to enhance Russia’s political influence in the region, and Iran using Moscow to protect slow talks while the Quds Force builds facts on the ground.
Cutting Iran’s logistics pipeline to Yemen
Yemen is a tragic if clear example as to how Iran’s ability to provide funds and weapons to regional surrogates exacerbates regional conflicts. Significant attention, therefore, should be paid to choking off Iran’s arteries of supply and communication with its Houthi surrogates.
Maritime interdiction cooperation between the Gulf Cooperation Council members and western states has always been strong. While it will continue, it remains unclear what more can be done to strengthen these efforts. Operations aimed at denying Houthi control of any port facilities or territory along Yemen’s coast will significantly hamper Iran’s ability to move personnel and weapons. The U.S. and regional partners should also consider expanding sanctions against those Iranian port facilities from which weapons originated.
Similarly, it remains imperative that Muscat ensures that its territory is not used to transship personnel or weapons and that the Houthis do not retain unencumbered access to Yemen’s Red Sea ports. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should continue to support a border force in Yemen's northern Marib province to disrupt any future weapons shipments and smuggler operations that might choose to transit Oman.
The upcoming Gulf Cooperation Council Summit offers an opportunity to reinforce the group’s position on Iran’s adventurism. The summit should end with specific language that calls for international action against the Quds Force by name as well as an agreement that no member will tolerate the operations of Iran’s security forces within their territory. The summit also should conclude with an agreement to scrutinize Iranian, Yemeni, and Lebanese travelers to restrict Iran’s ability to move personnel to Yemen and its ability to bring the Houthis’ supporters out for training. This step will not eliminate the transit of personnel, but it will likely place sufficient pressure on the transit routes to reduce Iran’s influence.
The Yemen war needs an urgent political solution followed by a concerted international aid effort. But this solution must also ensure Iran has no role in Yemen’s future to address valid U.S., Emirati, and Saudi security concerns. Failure to achieve this goal will leave Yemen a cockpit of regional conflict and the Yemeni people innocent victims of one more war.
This article was first published in Reaction