A ceasefire deal aimed at ending Yemen's civil war is collapsing amid disputes between the warring parties over how to implement the agreement. A resumption of hostilities would, according to aid groups, accelerate Yemen's descent into famine and threaten as many as 15 million people — more than half the population — with starvation.
Yemen's four-year conflict is generally viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backs the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, and Iran, which backs tribal-based Shiite rebels, known as Houthis.
Iran has long denied accusations that it provides financial and military support to the Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of Allah). According to the United Nations, however, Tehran has been supplying the rebels with weapons for more than a decade.
Yemen's civil war has deep roots based on religious, economic and political grievances that go back to September 1962, when a revolution replaced a 1,000-year-old absolute hereditary Shiite monarchy — the Zaidi imamate — with a secular regime, the Republic of Yemen.
The Houthi movement, formed in 1992 as a Zaidi-Shia armed opposition group to fight the pro-American government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has demanded regional autonomy and a greater share of power in the central government.
The Houthi insurgency began in June 2004, when the group's leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, launched an armed rebellion aimed at bringing down the Saleh government. Sectarian violence was inflamed when al-Houthi was killed by Yemeni forces in September 2004.
In November 2011, after more than three decades in power, Saleh signed a deal to transfer power to Yemeni Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The move, welcomed by many as a turning point in Yemen's history, failed to quell Houthi protests.
The conflict escalated into a full-blown civil war in September 2014, when the rebels, representing between a quarter and a third of the Yemeni population, staged a coup d'état and seized control of the capital, Sanaa. Hadi, Yemen's internationally-recognized president, subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a Western-backed coalition of ten Sunni Arab states — alarmed by what they viewed as an attempt by Iran to establish a militarized Shiite state in northern Yemen — began a military intervention against Houthi targets to restore the legitimate government. The Saudi-led coalition, despite having superior air power, quickly got bogged down due to the Houthis' adeptness at asymmetric warfare. The conflict soon reached a military stalemate that continues to this day.
At least 7,000 Yemeni civilians have died and more than 10,000 have been injured during the last four years of conflict, according to data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). At least three million people have been displaced and around 400,000 children suffer from severe malnutrition. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described Yemen as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis."
Sometimes called the "forgotten war," the conflict in Yemen received new scrutiny after the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul. Outrage over the murder increased pressure on Saudi Arabia to seek a truce in Yemen.
In November 2018, the United States announced that it was halting the aerial refueling of aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen. A month later, in December 2018, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution calling for the removal of American troops from Yemen.
In March 2019, the U.S. Senate voted to remove U.S. troops from Yemen within 30 days. In April 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution to end American military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The White House has vowed to veto the resolution. It has stated that the resolution raises "serious constitutional concerns" and is based on an "erroneous premise" — presumably meaning that it would not be in the U.S. interest to abandon Yemen to Iran.
In December 2018, the warring parties signed a series of UN-sponsored agreements — known collectively as the Stockholm Agreement — primarily aimed at facilitating the movement of international aid through Yemen's main Red Sea port of Hodeidah, through which the country receives about 70% of its food imports. The Houthis pledged to withdraw from Hodeidah and Saudi-led coalition forces promised to retreat from the outskirts of the city.
The troop withdrawals in Hodeidah were intended to clear the way for wider negotiations to end the four-year war. The agreement, however, has been criticized for being ambiguous; it does not, for instance, stipulate who should control the port in Hodeidah after the Houthis withdraw.
The Houthis now say that they will not withdraw from the port without guarantees that Saudi-led coalition forces will not seize control. Each side has accused the other of violating the pact. The Yemeni government believes that the Houthis are using the strategic port to smuggle in weapons from Iran to sustain their military efforts.
Saudi Arabia views the Houthis — who adhere to Zaidi Islam, an offshoot of Shiism — as an Iranian proxy that Tehran is using to its project political and military power in the Arabian Peninsula in an apparent quest to become the dominant force in the Middle East.
Saudi leaders have sounded the alarm about the threat posed by the so-called Shia Crescent, an ever-expanding arc of Iranian influence across the Arab world. In Iraq, for example, the government is now dominated by Shiites. In Syria, Iran (and Russia) have prevented Sunni rebels from overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shiism. In Lebanon, the Iran-sponsored Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah effectively runs the government.
Now in Yemen, Riyadh seems justifiably to fear that Tehran is seeking to establish a permanent presence on Saudi Arabia's southern border to encircle the Kingdom — possibly as part of a broader strategy to take control of Saudi oil fields and holy sites, Mecca and Medina — to upend the balance of power in the Middle East.
Iran's rhetoric has only fueled those concerns. After the Houthi takeover of Saana in September 2014, for example, Iranian Lawmaker Ali Reza Zakani, a trusted adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, boasted that Sanaa had become the fourth Arab capital under Iranian control. Sanaa, he said, now joins "three Arab capitals [Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus] which have ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Iranian Islamic revolution" and "the greater jihad." He added:
"The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone. It will extend, following its success, into Saudi territories. The Yemeni-Saudi vast borders will help accelerate its reach into the depths of Saudi land."
In November 2016, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, speaking at a gathering of naval commanders, said that Iran would like to set up naval bases in Yemen:
"We need distant bases, and it may become possible one day to have bases on the shores of Yemen or Syria, or bases on islands or floating bases. Is having distant bases less than nuclear technology? I say it is worth dozens of times more."
Some analysts have argued that while the West's attention has been focused on Iran's nuclear program to the exclusion of everything else, it has ignored Tehran's efforts to solidify its control over the Middle East. Analyst David Daoud observed:
"The West sees nuclear weapons as Iran's ultimate goal. But the Islamic Republic is not so simple-minded. Nuclear weapons are only one aspect of a multi-faceted strategy aimed at achieving regional hegemony. Particularly since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, Iran's expansionist policies have gone into overdrive. By supplying arms and training to various proxies helpful to its interests and using them to carry out terrorist campaigns around the Middle East and beyond, Iran has exponentially increased the region's instability and then taken advantage of the chaos."
The head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, has hinted that Tehran's long-term objective is to become a world power by gaining control over the global oil supply. In a February 2014 interview with Fars News, he said:
"The Shia crescent is not political. The Shia crescent is an economic crescent — and the most important economic issue in the world is oil. We know that 70% of global oil reserves are located in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where 80% of the oil is located in Shiite areas of the country such as Dammam and Qatif."
Middle East analyst Raman Ghavami wrote:
"Yemen is not an isolated war but intrinsically linked to Iran's wider regional strategy. Unless this aspect begins to be highlighted more insistently, it is difficult to see any lasting peace in Yemen — a treaty could be signed, but as Iran faces other problems it could return to destabilizing Yemen because it is a crucial part of Iran's Shia Crescent into Saudi Arabia."
The importance of Yemen's geostrategic location at the entrance to the Red Sea and across from the Horn of Africa was noted by retired IDF Lt.-Col. Michael (Mickey) Segall:
"Iran views Yemen, in general, and the northern Shia sector in particular, as a convenient staging ground for subversive activity against Saudi Arabia, its main religious-political rival in the Middle East, via the Saudis' 'backyard.'
"Iran also sees Yemen as an important factor in its policy of establishing a physical Iranian presence, both ground and naval, in the countries and ports of the Red Sea littoral, which control the shipping lanes that lead from the Persian Gulf to the heart of the Middle East and onward to Europe.
"If the Shia rebels gain control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, Iran can attain a foothold in this sensitive region giving access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a cause of concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, but also for Israel and European countries along the Mediterranean."
Iran and the Houthis
Analysts are divided on the question of how much influence Iran wields over the Houthis. Some say that the Houthis are fiercely independent and are more an ally to Iran than an actual proxy in the mold of Hezbollah. Iran's ideological and religious influence on the Houthis, nevertheless, has been documented:
Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the founder and chief ideologue of the Houthi movement, lived for a time in Qom, the main city in Iran for Shia religious studies, where he is said to have focused on the works of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, who in 1979 transformed Iran into an Islamic theocracy.
The Houthi movement's anti-American and anti-Semitic slogan — "Allahu Akbar! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!" — appears to have been inspired by Khomeini, who had popularized the call for "Death to America" during the Iranian revolution.
Iran has been shipping weapons to the Houthis since at least 2009, according to a 2015 report by a UN Panel of Experts. "Current military Iranian support to Houthis in Yemen is consistent with patterns of arms transfers going back to more than five years to date," the UN report said.
The UN document, presented to the Security Council's Iran Sanctions Committee in June 2015, reported that in April 2009, an unnamed Iranian vessel unloaded crates of weapons onto Yemeni boats. The crates were then delivered in batches to the Saada Governate, where the Houthi movement is based.
In October 2009, Yemeni authorities seized an Iranian ship, the Mahan 1, which was believed to be carrying weapons for the Houthis.
In February 2011, Yemen authorities intercepted an Iranian fishing vessel in Yemeni territorial waters. The vessel was carrying "900 Iranian-made anti-tank and anti-helicopter rockets," apparently intended for Houthi rebels.
In June 2012, an Iranian ship, the Imdad 1, sailed from an Iranian military port in Bandar Abbas to Yemen. The vessel was carrying weapons, which were unloaded into small boats and taken to Ash Shirh, a small port in southern Yemen, and then delivered to Houthis in the Saada Governate.
In January 2013, a joint US-Yemen patrol intercepted an Iranian ship, the Jihan 1, which was carrying 40 tons of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, destined for Houthi insurgents. A UN Monitoring Report later indicated that some of the cargo may have been bound for al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.
In December 2014, the Reuters news agency confirmed — from Yemeni, Western and Iranian sources — that Iran had been supplying weapons, money and training to the Houthis before and after their takeover of Sanaa. The report said that Houthis were receiving military training in Iran and Lebanon. "We think there is cash, some of which is channeled via Hezbollah and sacks of cash arriving at the airport," a Western source said. "The numbers of those going for training are enough for us to worry about."
A senior Iranian official told Reuters that the Quds Force — the external arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — had a "few hundred" military personnel in Yemen in 2014 to train Houthi fighters. He added:
"Everything is about the balance of power in the region. Iran wants a powerful Shiite presence in the region that is why it has got involved in Yemen as well."
A Yemeni official had then shown Reuters a breakdown of the cargo of the Jihan 1. It included Katyusha rockets, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, Russian-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Iranian-made night vision goggles and artillery systems that can track land and navy targets 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. There were also silencers, nearly three tons of RDX explosives, C-4 explosives, ammunition, bullets and electrical transistors. Reuters concluded:
"The assertions are likely to reinforce Saudi, and Western, fears that Iran is exploiting turmoil between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and now Yemen."
In March 2015, Tehran announced the beginning of an "air bridge" between Iran and Sanaa with a twice-daily shuttle service operated by Mahan Air, an Iranian government-controlled airline used by the IRGC Quds Force to ferry trainers and equipment to warzones. Hundreds of Hezbollah operatives, as well as members of the Iranian military, were said to have been transported from Yemen to Iran and back.
In September 2015, the Australian Navy intercepted a dhow containing anti-tank guided munitions, tripods, launch tubes, launcher assembly units and missile guidance sets. The weapons were reportedly destined for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In February 2016, Saudi Arabia stopped a ship that was carrying military communications equipment under the guise of carrying medical supplies. The vessel, which was on its way to Houthi rebels in Yemen, began its journey in the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Also that month, the Australian Navy intercepted a dhow that was carrying 2,000 AK-47s, 100 RPG launchers, and other weapons.
In March 2016, U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea seized an arms shipment from Iran likely bound for Houthi fighters. The weapons seized were hidden on a small dhow and included 1,500 AK-47 rifles, 200 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and 21 machine guns. Also that month, a French destroyer seized almost 2,000 AK-47s, dozens of Dragunov sniper rifles, nine antitank missiles, and other equipment.
In November 2016, the UK-based think tank Conflict Armament Research (CAR) reported the existence of an arms "pipeline" originating in Iran and extending to Yemen and Somalia:
"CAR's analysis of the seized materiel, and its investigations into the dhow trade around the Horn of Africa, suggests the existence of a weapon pipeline extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen, which involves the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles."
In October 2016, Reuters reported that Iran had increased weapons transfers to the Houthis through Oman, which neighbors Yemen.
In March 2017, Reuters noted that Iran had stepped up its support for the Houthis by sending advanced weapons and military advisers to Yemen. A senior Iranian official said that Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, met top IRGC officials in Tehran in February 2017 to look at ways to "empower" the Houthis. "At this meeting, they agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and financial support," the official said. "Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East."
Also that month, CAR reported that Iran was supplying the Houthis with "kamikaze" drones to attack Saudi-led coalition missile defense systems:
"The use of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) illustrates the Houthi and Saleh-aligned forces' ability to employ low-cost technology against the Coalition's sophisticated military assets. Their acquisition of Iranian-designed Qasef-1 UAVs supports allegations that Iran continues to bolster the capacity of Houthi and Saleh-aligned forces through the transfer of new technology and advanced weaponry."
In August 2017, Reuters disclosed that Iran had begun smuggling weapons into Yemen via Kuwait in an effort to evade an international arms embargo on the Houthis. Using this new route, Iranian ships were said to be transferring equipment to smaller vessels in the northern Persian Gulf, where they would face less scrutiny. The transshipments were reportedly taking place in Kuwaiti waters and nearby international shipping lanes. "Parts of missiles, launchers and drugs are smuggled into Yemen via Kuwaiti waters," a senior Iranian official told Reuters. "The route sometimes is used for transferring cash as well." The official added that "what is especially smuggled recently, or to be precise in the past six months, are parts of missiles that cannot be produced in Yemen."
In November 2017, Houthi rebels launched a missile strike at the Saudi capital Riyadh, targeting King Khalid International Airport. The missile used was a Burkan-2, which is based on the Iranian Qiam ballistic missile. The attack demonstrated that the Houthis were capable of reaching deep into Saudi territory.
In March 2018, CAR reported that Iran was supplying the Houthis with sophisticated radio-controlled improvised explosive devices (RCIEDs):
"The specific components of the RCIEDs employed by Houthi forces in Yemen are identical to components in an RCIED seized by Bahraini security forces from Iranian-backed militants and documented by CAR in Bahrain. These components are also identical to those interdicted by Yemeni security forces on board the Jihan 1 cargo vessel, while en route from Iran, in 2013."
In January 2018, a UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen noted:
"The Panel has identified missile remnants, related military equipment and military unmanned aerial vehicles that are of Iranian origin and were brought into Yemen after the imposition of the targeted arms embargo. As a result, the Panel finds that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in non-compliance with paragraph 14 of resolution 2216 (2015) in that it failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of Borkan-2H short-range ballistic missiles, field storage tanks for liquid bipropellant oxidizer for missiles and Ababil-T (Qasef-1) unmanned aerial vehicles to the then Houthi-Saleh alliance."
On March 25, 2018, Saudi air defenses intercepted seven ballistic missiles fired by Houthi rebels at Riyadh, where one man was killed from debris, as well as at the southern cities of Najran, Jizan and Khamis Mushait. Two weeks later, on April 11, 2018, Saudi air defense forces intercepted a ballistic missile over Riyadh. Houthi media outlets said that the missile was targeted at the Saudi defense ministry.
In May 2018, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on five Iranian individuals who "provided ballistic missile-related technical expertise to Yemen's Houthis, and who transferred weapons not seen in Yemen prior to the current conflict, on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)."
In July 2018, Houthi leaders reportedly ordered their followers and loyalists in rebel-controlled government institutions, including schools and universities, to organize seminars and events to commemorate the Iranian Revolution. The streets of Sanaa were decorated with posters encouraging the people to repeat Khomeini chants. The rebels also dispatched convoys mounted with loudspeakers to broadcast recordings by Houthi founder, Hussein al-Houthi, and his brother and their current leader, Abdul Malek.
In November 2018, the US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, provided evidence of Iranian missile proliferation to Yemen. He showed the remains of Sayyad-2C surface-to-air missile intercepted in Yemen by Saudi Arabia. The missile, emblazoned with the words "The Hunter Missile" in Farsi, was evidently intended for the Houthis. Hook said that Iran also is exporting antitank guided missiles: Toophan missiles were seized aboard a dhow ship in the Persian Gulf, and Towsan missiles were found by Saudi Arabia during a raid in Yemen.
In January 2019, Houthi rebels used an Iranian-supplied drone to attack a pro-government military parade at the Al-Anad military base. Yemen's chief of military intelligence, Major General Mohammad Saleh Tamah, and the Yemeni army's deputy chief of staff, Major General Saleh Al-Zindani, died of wounds sustained in the attack. The attack proved Iran's role in arming the rebels with drone and ballistic missile technology.
On January 25, a UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen revealed that fuel was being shipped illegally from Iran to Houthi rebels to finance their war against the Yemeni government. The report also said that the panel "has traced the supply to the Houthis of unmanned aerial vehicles and a mixing machine for rocket fuel and found that individuals and entities of Iranian origin have funded the purchase."
In February 2019, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller accused Iran of "throwing gasoline on the fire" of conflicts across the Middle East:
"We see Iran as one of the major forces that is trying to foster instability. Step back for a moment and look at what we have in Yemen. We have a non-state actor, a militia, that has overthrown the government, and yet it is receiving arms, equipment and a support from a state, Iran."
In March 2019, Saudi-led coalition forces reported that during the month they had shot down four Iranian-supplied drones.
Hezbollah and the Houthis
In addition to direct support from Iran, Houthi rebels are also receiving help from the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah.
In 2014, for instance, several Hezbollah operatives were arrested in Yemen and held on charges of training Houthi rebels. The men were members of Hezbollah's Unit 3800, an expeditionary militia modelled on the Iranian Quds Force and aimed at spreading Iran's revolution to other countries.
Earlier, in August 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury had sanctioned a former Hezbollah commander, Khalil Harb, for his command of Hezbollah activities in Yemen from 2012 onward. Harb had been found responsible for the movement of "large amounts of currency" to Yemen. Hezbollah also helped the Houthis establish their first satellite television channel, Al Masirah TV, which is based in Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs.
In May 2015, the Financial Times reported that ties between Hezbollah and the Houthis stretch back over a decade and that hundreds of Lebanese and Iranian advisors have provided training to Houthi fighters in Yemen. "This is not a relationship with one side in control and the other mindlessly following," a Houthi operative interviewed in Beirut said. "We exchange experience and ideology. We have our own character, our own way of doing things. The goal is not to build a Hezbollah model in Yemen."
In February 2016, Yemeni President Hadi claimed that he had received a letter from Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that read, "Our fighters arrived in Yemen to teach the Yemeni people the essence of governing."
Also that month, the Saudi Arabia-owned Al Arabiya news network posted a video of what it claimed was a meeting between Hezbollah commander Abu Saleh and Houthi forces in Yemen. The video shows a man in military fatigues addressing a group in Lebanese-accented Arabic about training for "martyrdom" operations inside Saudi Arabia.
In March 2016, an unnamed Hezbollah commander interviewed by the magazine Foreign Affairs about his group's support for the Houthis remarked: "After we are done with Syria, we will start with Yemen, Hezbollah is already there.... Who do you think fires Tochka missiles into Saudi Arabia? It's not the Houthis in their sandals, it's us."
In June 2018, Saudi-led coalition forces said that they had killed eight Hezbollah fighters in the mountainous Saada region in north-western Yemen. Coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki said the Hezbollah fighters were part of a group heading to the Saudi border when they were spotted:
"Terrorist members from Hezbollah and from the Iranian regime are coming to help the rebels launch ballistic missiles and train them in combat. Both Iran and Hezbollah must stop sending military experts to Yemen."
In August 2018, Hezbollah revealed that its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had met with a delegation headed by Houthi spokesman Mohamad Abdelsalam to discuss the war in Yemen.
Although questions remain about the degree to which Iran can control or influence Houthi behavior, the ongoing war in Yemen has increased the Houthis dependence on weapons and financial support from Iran, whose position in Yemen is stronger than ever.
Since the October 2018 murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, the tide of world opinion has turned against Saudi Arabia — a turn of events Iran will be sure to exploit. Even if the warring sides eventually reach a peace agreement, Iran's presence in Yemen is unlikely to diminish anytime soon.
Current affairs analyst Gerald M. Feierstein noted:
"Hard-line elements [in Iran] appear to see the continuation of the conflict [in Yemen] as a relatively low-cost and low-risk means of sustaining political, economic, and military pressure on the Saudis. Saudi Arabia's intervention has reportedly cost between $5 billion and $6 billion a month, while Iran's expenditures in Yemen probably total only millions a year."
Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yemany has accused Iran of ordering the Houthis not to implement the Stockholm Agreement, aimed at winding down the conflict, after first directing the Houthis to accept the agreement:
"The Houthis' intransigence confirms their loyalty to Iran's negotiating tactics. These usually begin with implicit approval of negotiating solutions, followed by complete retraction in order to force the international community to make more concessions and impose a fait accompli on the Yemeni government and Arab coalition."
Even without Iranian pressure, as the UN panel of experts has observed, the Houthis have little incentive to cooperate:
"The Houthis believe that they only have to survive and outlast the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in order to 'win' the war, which limits their willingness to negotiate. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition, on the other hand, is faced with four broad choices: (a) unilaterally cease hostilities and leave the Houthis in control; (b) mount a massive ground invasion with no guarantee of success and certain casualties; (c) continue to carry out airstrikes and hope for different results [after four years of fighting] .... or (d) attempt to resurrect ... an anti-Houthi coalition.... The Panel does not believe that any side is in a position to secure an outright military victory."
Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has said that he will not allow Iran to establish a "Persian" state in Yemen. The UN panel of experts, however, has concluded that Yemen's ability to remove the Houthis (much less the Iranians) from northern Yemen is limited: "The authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen has now eroded to the point that it is doubtful whether it will ever be able to reunite Yemen as a single country."