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The Iranian Sphere of Influence Expands Into Yemen

Shiite militias are running the show in Yemen and Tehran couldn't be happier.


Stopping the Islamic State has taken over the headlines and dominated Middle East policy debates in recent weeks. While the jihadists’ rampage is cause for understandable concern, it has obscured a huge strategic shift in another Middle Eastern linchpin: Yemen. The takeover of Sanaa in mid-September by the Houthis, a Shiite minority group, has dire implications for Yemen’s neighbors and for the American war on terror. And further escalation seems likely. On Oct. 8, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi called for mass demonstrations against foreign meddling in the country’s politics.

Above all else, the latest developments in Sanaa represent a huge victory for Iran. But the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos.

For years, many Yemenis have believed that Iran provides money and training to the Houthis, who comprise 30 percent of Yemen’s 25 million citizens. Officials in Sanaa, from President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to party leaders, have accused Iran of meddling in their affairs. Meanwhile, Iranian officials are all too happy to encourage such suspicions: In a recent statement, Ali Riza Zakani, Tehran’s representative in the Iranian Parliament, bragged that Sanaa would be the fourth Arab capital to fall into Iran’s hands.

Houthi militias rode into Sanaa in mid-September, on a wave of popular discontent over rising fuel prices and rampant corruption. They soon moved to occupy public squares where they lead chants of "Death to America, death to the Jews!" and called for a change in leadership and for lower fuel prices.

Then suddenly on Sept. 21, one day after Jamal Benomar, the United Nations’ representative in Yemen, announced an agreement to resolve the crisis, the Houthis took over ministries, military bases, government buildings, and the airport. Neither the army nor the police fought back. Sanaa was practically handed over to the Houthis — almost a mirror image of Iraq’s response to the Islamic State (IS) in June. Yemen’s prime minister resigned, accusing the president of  monopolizing power, thus fulfilling the rebels’ main demand: the resignation of his government. The Houthis then sat down with the president and the other political parties, who had no choice but to oblige, after the balance of power had shifted in the Houthis’ favor. They soon signed the "Peace and National Partnership" agreement, which had been negotiated under Benomar. But it seems like Iran is getting the best deal out of it.

The agreement called for the swift naming of a new prime minister, the formation of a new government, and the appointment of two presidential advisors who would influence the selection of cabinet members and the distribution seats among the various parties. Significantly, these advisors would be selected from the Houthis and Al Hirak, the southern separatist movement. Al Hirak was formed when a number of political parties from Yemen’s southern region came together in 2007 after demonstrations in the south calling for equal rights were largely ignored by the government. Many of its divided coalition partners seek to overturn the 1990 unification of northern and southern Yemen and declare independence, in response to a northern government they feel has marginalized them politically and economically. U.S. officials believe that the Houthis and Southern secessionists are Iran’s allies.

But when the president named a new prime minister on Oct. 7, the Houthis rejected his choice, perpetuating Yemen’s political crisis. Houthi leaders accused the president, improbably, of bowing to American pressure during the selection process.

If this kind of political spoiling seems familiar, that’s because the Houthis have ripped it straight from Hezbollah’s playbook. When the Iran-backed group took over Beirut in 2008, it used force against its political opponents, occupied the city, then sat alongside them to sign a new power-sharing deal and form a new government, giving the Shiite party veto power over its decisions. Six years later, Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon is blocking the election of a new president, causing a political vacuum.

There are numerous links between Hezbollah and the Houthis. In an interview earlier this year with the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, President Hadi accused Hezbollah of advising and training the Houthis, and revealed that his government was holding five Hezbollah members for allegedly aiding the rebels. He also pointed to Hezbollah’s support for Al Hirak, whose leader Ali Salem Al Beidh was reportedly under Hezbollah protection in Beirut. The Lebanese party even helped establish and support Al Masira, the Houthi radio station in Yemen.

On Sept. 25, the government — under pressure from the Houthis, who were now "dictating terms in the capital,"  according to a Yemeni official — freed three members of Iran’s elite military force, the Revolutionary Guard, who had been imprisoned in Yemen. That came a day after the  government released two imprisoned Hezbollah operatives.

The implications of events in Yemen extend beyond its borders. Bab Al Mandab is a key strait that passes through the Gulf of Aden, linking the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. It serves as the world’s main oil transit waterway, and main shipping lifeline through the Suez Canal. If the Houthis secured Bab Al Mandab and the sea in Al Hudaydah governorate, another strategic waterway, they would control the traffic from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, a sobering prospect for those worried about increased Iranian influence in the region.

Hadi is well aware of the geo-political stakes. In his interview with Al Hayat he said that "whoever holds the keys to Bab Al Mandab and the Hormuz Strait does not need a nuclear bomb." Such fears prompted calming words from the head of the Suez Canal Authority, who affirmed that the international community "will not allow anyone to disrupt trade between East and West."

But Sanaa faces yet another problem. Houthi leaders know how to speak to the fears of the West — and especially those of the United States. At his victory rally in Sanaa on Sept. 23, Houthi leader al-Houthi said the takeover of Sanaa will lead to stability. He spoke as a victor, presenting himself as the new power player and the enemy of al Qaeda, a signal to the United States and its allies that he is fighting terrorism just like them — exactly as Hezbollah claims it is doing now in Lebanon.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for its part, seems energized by the developments. On Sept. 25, it put out a statement accusing the Houthis of "completing the Persian project in Yemen," and calling on the Sunnis to take up arms. Indeed, the group has already begun attacking the Houthis in different parts of Yemen, threatening to further enflame this this already-raging sectarian conflict.

Political and security analysts warn that the worst is yet to come, and that the Houthis cannot rule Yemen alone. Refusing to hand in their weapons in Sanaa, exactly Hezbollah’s situation in Lebanon, renders any political agreement meaningless because political decisions are made under the barrel of the gun. It might take a miracle to keep Yemen together now, and prevent it from splintering.

Sanaa, meanwhile, remains under occupation by the Houthis. They refuse to withdraw their heavy weapons from the capital, or return the large cache of weapons taken from the military. Meanwhile, President Hadi has yet to name a new prime minister. Interestingly, the U.N. Security Council has welcomed the new agreement, calling on all the parties to implement it and turn over "all medium and heavy weapons to legitimate state security bodies."

If the Houthis do not rein in their militias, withdraw their heavy weapons, fully implement the U.N. agreement, and mend their relations with the rest of the country, Yemen might spiral out of control. Tehran may be pleased with itself. But its Yemen adventure might show the limitations of its power, and the heavy price for its penchant to play the spoiler. In the meantime, it is in the interests of the United States, and the interests of Yemen’s neighbors to help roll back the Houthi advance and implement the peace agreement.

<p> Amal Mudallali is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, a foreign policy analyst on the Middle East, and an advisor on international relations. </p>