For more than a decade now, the Houthis, an Iranian-sponsored militia, have used a combination of missile and drone technology to destabilize the Gulf region. However, the Houthi missile attack on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) raised a special alarm. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE has never been targeted before, a demonstration of Iranian confidence. By targeting Abu Dhabi during the visit of the Israeli president to celebrate the Abraham Accords, the Iranians made their intention of undermining the pact clear.
The Houthi offensive trajectory comes as no surprise. Badreddin al Houthi, a prominent theologian of the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, and his son Hussein spent time in Qom as a guest of Ayatollah Khomeini’s foundation Majma Jahani Ahle-e Byt. The foundation recruited promising Shite figures from around the region to lead pro-Iranian militias in the image of Hezbollah. Helped by the Islamic Republic Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force (QF), the al Houthi family, hoping to emulate the Lebanese Hezbollah, launched the Ansar Allah movement.
Qasem Soleimani, the head of the QF, was personally involved in the Houthi project, and Hassan Nasrallah used Hezbollah’s resources to provide the communication infrastructure, including a dedicated TV station. Nasrallah became quite a celebrity among the Houthi movement, prompting Hussein al Houthi to refer to himself as the Yemeni “Nasrallah.”
In 2011, the Arab Spring supercharged the Houthis’ fortunes. The youthful protesters in the Yemen capital, Sana, forced the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, paving the way for the election of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as the new president, in 2012. The Houthis joined forces with military elements that supported Saleh launching a powerful offensive. By 2015, they controlled a large swath of territory, including the capital, the strategic port of Hodeidah, the governorate of Taiz, and almost reached the southern port city of Aden.
The rapid advance of the militia rattled the Obama administration, which had just concluded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Anxious to present the regime in the best possible light, President Barack Obama claimed that Tehran tried to dissuade the Houthis from marching on Sana and beyond; however, the reality was very different. As early as 2005, the IRGC decided to make Yemen the center of its anti-access area denial (A2/AD) tactical strategy to hinder traffic through the Bab-El-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf.
The Sana airport and Hodeida port seizure helped the IRGC’s Weapons Transfer Unit (Unit 190), under Brigadier General Behnam Shahariyari and Sayyed Jabar Hosseini, with the delivery of military cargo. Soleimani called the developments a “golden opportunity,” so much so that Alireza Zakani, a hardline Majlis member, declared that “Iran was now in control of four capitals,” Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana.
Fear of Iran’s “southern Hezbollah” on their borders prompted Saudi Arabia and allied Gulf countries to launch their offensive in defense of Hadi’s government. However, the Saudi coalition has failed to dislodge the Houthis despite considerable efforts. Worse, Riyadh has been blamed for the death of more than 130,000 people and the widespread humanitarian disaster in the country.
Given the IRGC’s asymmetrical warfare strategy, the Saudi coalition was disadvantaged, because the Houthis were operating among private citizens. The chief IRGC strategist Hassan Abbasi noted that hiding among civilians was an advantage of asymmetrical conflicts. Conventional armies were bound by international law to minimize casualties among non-combatants, degrading their performance.
Abbasi boasted that in the 2006 Lebanon War, dispersing fighters in public spaces and private homes limited the Israel Air Force. The “Yemeni Hezbollah” was also able to manipulate food supplies to reward allies and punish rivals. Since the Houthis did not allow international inspections, no real estimate of the policy of deliberate starvation was possible.
With the focus on humanitarian issues, a coalition of human rights groups and members of the Iranian lobby in Washington urged rebuke to Saudi Arabia, whose image had been seriously tarnished because of the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2019, Robert Malley, an ex-official in the Obama administration, wrote that “Yemen cannot afford to wait,” adding that the Houthis’ “tie to Iran was debatable and debated.” Previously, Malley decried the suffering of the Yemeni people and demanded pressure on Riyadh to end the war.
Having helped redirect the focus on Saudi Arabia, the IRGC expanded its direct control of Yemen. In September 2020, a veteran IRGC commander, Hassan Irloo, was appointed as the new ambassador to the Houthi government in Sana. Irloo, close to Soleimani, had joined another commander, the elusive Abdul Rezah Shahlai, in apparent preparation for the planned Houthi push into the oil production fields in the Marib and Shabha governorates. Irloo died of COVID-19 in December 2021 and was replaced by Shahlai, who had previously eluded an American assassination attempt.
The State Department sanctioned both officials, but there was a need to curtail the Houthis’ increasingly predatory behavior, guided by Iran. In addition to the scores of hits on Saudi Arabia, the militia has attacked ships in the Gulf. The use of missiles and drones, both known as hard-to-detect left-of-bang weapons, made the situation particularly precarious. In the last days of the Trump administration, then secretary of state Mike Pompeo, added the Houthis to its list of Foreign Terror Organizations (FTO).
A coalition of human rights groups, the pro-Iran lobby and some diplomats decried the decision. One hundred experts wrote Pompeo to object that it would hurt the population. In February 2021, Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan ordered the Houthis’ designation lifted. Some commentators pointed out Malley, the administration point-man on reviving the JCPOA, might have played a role in the decision and the delisting could have been a gesture of goodwill towards the regime.
Whatever the administration’s hopes, the gesture emboldened the Houthis and their Iranian patrons, leading to a dramatic escalation of drone and missile attacks. The IRGC has supplied Houthis with missiles, such as the Tosan, Zulfiqar, Sayyad-2 and Quds-1, and drones such as the Shahed-123 and the Ababil-3. As well, they furnished the militia with drone expertise and equipment, including gyroscopes, for an indigenous HESA Qasef-style drone. With the help of Hezbollah operatives, the Guards turned Yemen into a war lab for missile and drone technology that can be used against Israel.
The scale and ambition of the Houthi project alarmed observers. Hans Grundberg, the United Nation’s special envoy to Yemen, and Adm. James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, warned that the expanded Houthi actions in the Gulf could escalate into a major regional conflict. Even some signatories to the Pompeo letter had a change of heart and urged to relist the Houthis as a terror group.
As one of them put it, “the uncontested Houthis used the intervening year to double down on aggression.” Far from returning to the negotiating table, they would “not only challenge the well-being of the Yemeni people” but “also vital American interests in Bab el-Mandeb Strait, stability in Arab Peninsula and even Israel.” Responding to these concerns, Brett McGurk, Middle East coordinator on Biden’s National Security Council, initiated a drive to relist the militia as an FTO. McGurk made clear that the Houthis were “unwilling to engage” in the peace process and reneged on previous agreements negotiated by the UN.
However, McGurk has faced opposition inside the administration and a fierce backlash from a coalition of human rights, anti-war, and pro-Iran groups. As before, there have been warnings of a major humanitarian catastrophe, even though there is no evidence that civilians fared better after the delisting. A Council on Foreign Relations report concluded that in 2021 the situation worsened. Some observers noted McGurk’s initiative was frowned upon because of the new round of JCOPA negotiations. Some sources implied that the Iranians had tried to have the IRGC removed from the terror list as part of the deal.
The renewal of the JCPOA, a distinct possibility, makes restoring the Houthi’s terror designation essential. According to reports, Iran would receive billions of dollars from its frozen accounts. There is little doubt that some of the money would be invested in Yemen’s war lab to destabilize the Gulf further and hurt Israel.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Philos Project.