Hyping a Proxy War in Yemen

It is an axiom in mainstream analyses of the Middle East that Sunni and Shii Muslims overwhelmingly operate in society based on their sectarian identity and not much else, regardless of their location (Iraq, Syria, Yemen), profession, tribal or regional affiliations, or other economic and political factors. It is a slight variation on the larger manner in which Muslims, particularly in the West, are deemed to interact in society solely based on their “Muslimness,” where aspects of their identities- whether they are mothers, doctors, businessman, or possibly gamers– are deemed subsidiary to their membership in a religion that has over a billion adherents. The obvious unacceptability of such an approach as applied to members of other religions and ethnicities need not be recounted here.

The latest example of Shii-Sunni determinism, where Shiis and Sunnis act as Shiis and Sunnis and little else matters, can be seen no better than the ongoing media coverage of events unfolding in Yemen. It is a conflict deemed to be developing as a proxy war between the country’s Houthi rebels, seen as backed by Shii Iran, and a coalition of mainly Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, supporting the ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. As the NY Times wrote on March 22, 2015: “The conflict has taken on the features of a regional proxy war, with Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders are Zaydi Shiites, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni monarchies backing Mr. Hadi.”

This belief, and now likely occurrence, of a sectarian proxy war in Yemen has largely been a self-fulfilling prophecy, as much the result of unqualified claims perpetuated by mainstream media outlets as from hype stemming from Saudi Arabian officials that the Houthis are backed by Iran and doing their bidding in Yemen. The claims are based on the Houthis practice of Zaydism. (Zaydism is an offshoot of mainstream Twelver Shiism, the predominant religion in Iran.) No matter that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a onetime ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia who sought to rally tribal support in Yemen against the Houthis years prior, is now aligned with the Houthis and assisting them through his continued support by some in the military. No matter that Yemen is home to one of the highest rates of corruption in the world or a high rate of youth unemployment. Yet the importance of such shifting political alliances and local socio-economic factors remains severely overlooked.

With little evidence offered regarding the nature of the relationship between Iran and the Houthis, headlines nonetheless abound with inclusions of “Iranian-backed Shia Houthi fighters” and articles using the phrasing “the rise to power of the Iran-backed Houthis” and “the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.” (For a more nuanced picture of the history of the Zaydis and the political rise of Houthis in Yemen, including the impact of Iran upon Houthi religious leaders, see Daniel Varisco’s “Proxy Moron’s: The Demolition of Yemen.”)

In justifying the recent Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthis, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States noted, “It’s the Iranians who interfered in Yemen…there are Iranian advisers advising [the Houthis] and Hezbollah operatives advising them.” The claim of association between Hezbollah and the Houthis- stemming from their shared adherence to Shiism- goes back several years and was the subject of a US diplomatic cable entitled “Hizballah and Houthis: Different Goals and Ideology.” The November 18, 2009 cable contrasts the ideologies and make-up of Hezbollah and the Houthis and argues to understand the Houthis as a political, rather than religious, movement. “The Houthis could more accurately be characterized as a movement with religious undertones and politically addressable grievances rather than a radical, religiously motivated sect with which the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government] cannot negotiate,” the author writes. The cable goes on to cite a July 2009 article by Abdullah Lux in the journal Contemporary Arab Affairs that there is a “lack of evidence of direct support (to the Houthis) by either Hizballah or Iran.”

In a cable four days later (November 22, 2009) entitled “Tempting but No, Saudis Resist Iranian Provocation” the Iran-Houthi relationship is once again center stage. The cable presents a litany of accusations and condemnations by Saudi officials and religious leaders for Iran’s backing of the Houthis and the former’s meddling in Yemen. No actual evidence between Iran and Houthi collaboration is offered. Nonetheless, the ongoing narrative championing direct links between Shii Iran and the Zaydi Houthis has been sustained in the interim and served as a justification of the recent campaign to intervene in Yemen’s internal affairs.

United States lawmakers have quickly accepted the justification of Iran and Houthi collusion in offering overwhelming support to the Saudi campaign. As Julian Pecquet recently reported in Al-Monitor, the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have already received bipartisan support. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, justified Saudi actions by noting, “The takeover of large swaths of Yemen by Iranian-backed Shia militants has forced our Saudi allies to take military action.” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif), the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, was equally adamant: “The military action by Saudi Arabia and its partners was necessitated by the illegal action of the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers,” Pecquet quotes the Congressman as stating.

Iran’s putative support of the Houthis should not be taken lightly. In September 2014, three members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were freed, following their arrest for supposedly providing logistical and training support to the Houthis. Days earlier Yemeni authorities released members of Hezbollah who were arrested on the same charge. In January 2013, a ship containing weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, was intercepted off Yemen’s coast. The shipment was believed to have been sent by Iran. Further reports claim that some Zaydi students have traveled to Iran to receive seminary training.

The presentation of such evidence has been absent from casual depictions of the Houthis as “Iran-backed” Shii rebels, deemed a secondary concern to the overarching claim it seeks to purport. Instead, it has been replaced by the much-hyped axiom of sectarian determinism, aligning Shiis with Shiis, or Shiis with Zaydis as the case may be, which wills an association based on religious affiliation and nothing more. Any relationship between Iran and the Houthis, the evidence notwithstanding, has been further clouded by a determined Saudi campaign to depict a close association between the two parties, even when one likely didn’t exist, as was the case back in 2009. No doubt things have changed since 2009 as noted in the examples above. But few attempts have been made to understand the intersection of political rhetoric, whether stemming from Saudi Arabia, other governments, or non-governmental actors, and actual realities on the ground. Well aware of the benefits of playing up such rhetoric for Sunni and Western audiences and capitalizing on the climate of fear around Iran’s influence in Yemen and Iranian support for Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, Hadi recently referred to the Houthi rebels as Iran’s “stooges” at an Arab League Summit.

Of the few exceptions giving a brief nod to the role of rhetoric around the Iran-Houthi relationship was a recent article in The Washinghton Post that noted in passing “The Saudis and their allies think that the Shiite rebels are backed by Iran and that Tehran is trying to exert control” (emphasis added) or a recent NY Times article that noted that the Houthis are “portrayed as Iranian proxies by the Saudis but few others.” If only the latter statement were true. A detailed assessment of the nature of the relationship between Iran and the Houthis, how the relationship functioned, and an exploration of the evidence indicating Iran’s backing of the Houthis up to this point is becoming moot. It is soon to be superseded by more recent, and likely more corroborative, evidence of Iran-Houthi collaboration, arising from the self-fulfilling prophecy of a much-hyped sectarian proxy war that has culminated with Saudi intervention now coming to fruition in Yemen. These are developments that very may well draw Iran and the Houthis closer together.

Kevin Schwartz is a recent Social Science Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow for Transregional Research and Visiting Scholar at Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, University

Kevin L. Schwartz is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague where he focuses on Iran. He was previously a research fellow at the US Library of Congress and a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy. His website is www.kevinschwartz.org.