Tensions between the US and Iran are ratcheting up as the War in Yemen rages on. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned the Iranians “we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces”. The danger of this open-ended warning is the inclusion of the word “proxy”.
Many consider the Houthis in Yemen to be a proxy of Iran, including President Trump himself. His November 2018 statement, in response to the criticism of US-Saudi relations after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, said “the country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East.”
Here Trump lays out who he considers to be Iranian proxies, but this statement ignores the history of Yemen and the Houthis.
The Houthis originated from a group known as Shabab al-Mumanin (the Believing Youth) that started in the early 1990s, educating Yemeni youth about Zaydism, a Shia sect of Islam. Zaydism has a deep history in Yemen, the north of Yemen was ruled by Zaydi Imams for a thousand years.
With the help of the Egyptian army in 1962, Republicans overthrew the last Zaydi Imam and formed the Yemen Arab Republic. Zaydism was discouraged in the Yemen Arab Republic and Salafi Wahhabism, imported from Saudi Arabia, was promoted. The Yemen Arab Republic was unified with the Communist South in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Hussein al-Houthi (the namesake of the movement) was a Zaydi political activist who served in parliament from 1993-1997 and founded the Believing Youth. The Houthis opposed then President Saleh, accusing him of corruption and of being backed by the US and Saudi Arabia. The group gradually militarized, with Saleh’s backing of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq a big turning point. The Houthis, then officially named Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), changed their slogan to “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam”.
President Saleh’s forces tried to arrest al-Houthi in 2004 in the north Governorate of Saada. The Houthis resisted, igniting a series of wars between the Houthis and the Yemeni government with the backing and military assistance of Saudi Arabia. Although Hussein al-Houthi was killed in the first war in 2004, his father, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and his brother, Abd Malik al-Houthi took over the movement and continued to fight Saleh through 2010.
In the spring of 2011 the Houthis were involved in the massive protests against President Saleh which forced him to step down. Saleh’s Vice President Abd Rubbo Mansour Hadi became president of the transitional government, but the parliament remained the same. In the eyes of the Houthis it was the same government they fought against from 2004 to 2010.
The Houthis continued fighting the government and in 2014 they stormed the capital Sanaa. As they began to take control of Yemen and moved further south, capturing parts of Aden in 2015, President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis began their military campaign on Yemen, with full US support, on March 26th 2015.
Since Bolton’s threat against Iran and the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln to the Middle East, the Houthis have launched a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline west of Riyadh. This could be seen as an attack on “US interests” or one of “our allies” as Bolton warned against in his statement.
The Saudis responded to the attack with an airstrike on Sanaa, killing at least six civilians and wounding dozens more.
It is hard to establish how involved Iran is in the Houthi movement, but it is irresponsible for journalists to refer to them as “Iranian-Backed Rebels” like many do. The most common accusation of Iran is that they arm the Houthi rebels, but Yemen has always had a lot of weapons, ranking second in guns per capita to the US in 2013.
The US Navy has seized a few arms shipments heading into Yemen, but it is hard to determine their origins. Tehran has denied that they have sent weapons to the Houthis, saying they only back them politically.
It has been reported that US arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been given to al-Qaeda linked militant groups fighting against the Houthis.
This brief history of the Houthis shows the ignorance of Trump’s statement
blaming Iran for the war in Yemen. Critics of Trump’s hardline policy against
Iran are quick to give him slack and blame John Bolton or Mike Pompeo, but Trump
campaigned on tearing up the Iran nuclear deal. A vote for Trump was a vote
for a worse diplomatic relationship with Iran.
Dave DeCamp is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on
US Foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.