Atlantic Council: Iran's Fingerprints in Yemen Real or Imagined?

Elisabeth Kendall recently published an issue brief for the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security regarding Iranian involvement in Yemen. She begins by criticizing those who misinterpret the available data to confirm pre-existing biases or conclusions regarding Iranian support for Houthi forces. Kendall states that her goal is to examine the conflict in Yemen in a more neutral manner by eschewing any particular predisposition toward one conclusion or another.

Kendall begins by refuting the notion that sectarian divisions are fueling the conflict in Yemen. She acknowledges that the parties are largely grouped by their sectarian affiliations, but asserts that their motivations are primarily political. The Houthis, for example, began as a cultural movement intended to counter Wahhabist and Salafist influence and end the political and economic marginalization of Yemen’s Zaydi population. As for the current conflict, the Houthis were motivated to act in response to a weak, corrupt, and ineffective government, rather than sectarian considerations. Kendall also points out that Yemen is not an overtly sectarian country and that the two main sides in the conflict are not totally comprised of one sect or the other, because not all Zaydis support the Houthis and there are some Sunni fighters aligned with former President Saleh. Moreover, the parties fighting against the Houthis (excluding militant jihadist groups) are motivated by concerns about local autonomy, rather than sectarian allegiances.

Kendall next examines whether the Houthis are an Iranian proxy motivated to install a pro-Iranian regime in Yemen. She cites US embassy cables that found no substantial links between the Houthis and Iran, other than some scholarly connections and limited financial support from Iranian non-governmental organizations. Kendall also references interviews and reports that Iranians do not exercise command and control over the Houthis. As a practical matter, an Iranian-style regime would be difficult to install in Yemen because the Sunni population outnumbers the Shi’a in Yemen. Kendall characterizes the Houthi-Iranian connection as a purely pragmatic one. The Houthis will continue to accept limited Iranian help as long as it helps their military and political objectives. Kendall concludes by emphasizing that the underlying structure of the conflict would remain the same, with or without Iranian involvement.

Iran freely admits that it considers the Houthi-led government to be the legitimate government of Yemen. Numerous Iranian officials have also boasted about Iran’s growing influence in Yemen and the region as a whole. Kendall advises, however, that Iran’s rhetoric exaggerates its actual role in the conflict. In so doing, Iran fulfills several foreign policy objectives. First, it bolsters Iran’s reputation as an influential actor in the region. Second, it antagonizes Saudi Arabia, thereby forcing it to expend valuable resources in Yemen while Iran pursues its strategic objectives in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Third, Saudi Arabia’s involvement, in response to the perceived Iranian threat, has damaged its international reputation due to its violations of international humanitarian law. As a result, Iran has been able to paint itself as a state concerned about Yemen’s humanitarian crisis by calling for political reconciliation and an end to the war. Finally, Iran can exploit its position in Yemen to extract concessions in other areas from its rivals.

Iran is not the only state attempting to exaggerate its role in Yemen, according to Kendall. Prior to the civil war, the Yemeni government often highlighted Houthi connections with Iran to draw greater funding and support from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. While initially skeptical, Saudi Arabia now fears Iranian encirclement and has dedicated extensive resources to countering perceived involvement by Iran in Yemen. Kendall cautions, however, that the rest of the international community should not overstate Iran’s involvement in Yemen. She argues that numerous reports of Iranian arms being shipped to Yemen are suggestive of Iranian origin, but not conclusive. She cites a UN Panel of Experts on Yemen report that failed to confirm any large supply of weapons coming directly from the Iranian government. More likely sources included Russia, black markets, and Iranian entities acting independently from the government. Kendall also points out that the more sophisticated weapons being used in Yemen once belonged to the Yemeni government itself. US military correspondence suggests that the Hadi government provided US weapons, intended for the government, to the Houthis. Reports also indicate some Saudi weapons systems were seized by Houthis on the battlefield. Whether Iran has provided military advisors to the Houthis is also unclear. The number of advisors reported by different sources varies wildly from at least ten to possibly one hundred. While Iran claims it is training, arming, and advising Houthi forces in Yemen, Kendall stresses skepticism in believing these claims.

Kendall concludes her piece by stressing caution and vigilance in assessing Iranian involvement in Yemen. While current evidence to prove Iran’s role in Yemen is inconclusive, she warns that Iran possesses the capability to provide greater support for Houthi forces if it wishes to do so. The international community should continue to monitor Yemen’s civil war carefully and be wary of making exaggerated or false claims about Iran’s current role in the conflict.