As Yemen’s civil war rages on, a rebel group known as the Houthis has emerged as a significant threat in the Middle East and beyond. Their allegiance to Iran and attacks on international shipping have raised alarms globally, leaving many questioning whether Saudi Arabia was right all along about the danger posed by the militants.
The Houthis follow a radical Shiite ideology and took control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa in late 2014,prompting military intervention by a Saudi-led coalition in early 2015. The Saudis argued the action was necessary to reinstate the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and counter Iran’s growing influence in Yemen through its Houthi proxies.
Washington initially gave only reluctant backing to the Saudi campaign, which soon became mired in a bloody stalemate with devastating humanitarian consequences. But successive U.S. administrations have ramped up criticism of Saudi actions in Yemen while downplaying the Houthi threat, painting them as an internal Yemeni rebel faction rather than a regional menace aligned with Iran.
Recent months have seen a flurry of Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, actions they farcically justify as supporting the Palestinian group Hamas. This has prompted a reckoning in Washington and beyond about whether the dangers posed by the Houthis were underestimated all along. A look at their extremist rhetoric and ties to Tehran suggests Saudi concerns about the militants were well founded.
“Death to America, Death to Israel”
The Houthi slogan leaves little doubt about their violently anti-Western worldview: “God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam.” It’s adapted from the mantra of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and gives an indication of their ideological inspiration.
Unlike Yemen’s main southern separatist movement, the Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, a sect that makes up about a third of the country’s population. Their stronghold is in the mountainous north bordering Saudi Arabia. The name “Houthi” comes from their first leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a former member of parliament who launched an insurgency in 2004 against longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saleh was deposed in 2012 after Arab Spring protests, plunging Yemen into political turmoil. The Houthis took advantage by expanding their territorial control with help from Tehran. When Houthi militants marched on Sanaa in September 2014, seizing key state institutions, the alarm bells rang in Riyadh.
By early 2015, the Houthis had ousted Hadi, the transitional president, forcing him to flee to Saudi Arabia. Alarmed at an Iranian proxy taking over its southern neighbor, the Saudis assembled a coalition of Arab states that launched a military offensive in March 2015 to roll back Houthi gains.
Dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led air campaign received tactical support from the U.S., including intelligence sharing and logistics. But the Obama administration was reluctant about backing another open-ended Middle East military quagmire. There were also concerns that taking too forceful a line against the Houthis would derail sensitive nuclear talks underway with their patrons in Tehran.
Critics would later charge that Obama put outreaching to Iran ahead of checking their regional ambitions and standing by traditional Gulf allies. Whatever the truth, mixed messaging from Washington did little to clarify U.S. policy on Yemen.
The Blame Game
Operation Decisive Storm failed in its stated goal of removing the Houthis from Sanaa and restoring Hadi’s government. Instead, it quickly sank into a bloody stalemate with both sides accused of war crimes and human rights violations.
In particular, Saudi airstrikes were blamed for large-scale civilian casualties, including a horrific attack on a school bus that killed dozens of children. Even as international criticism mounted, the Saudis insisted they had no choice but to act given the extremist threat posed by the Houthis and their Iranian sponsors.
In Washington, congressional Democrats like Bernie Sanders seized on the civilian carnage to demand legislation ending U.S. support for Saudi “war crimes” in Yemen. This coincided with broader efforts to punish Riyadh for the grisly 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. During the 2020 campaign, candidate Joe Biden vowed to end arms sales that facilitated Saudi actions in Yemen.
Upon taking office, Biden followed through by announcing a freeze on offensive arms shipments. He also revoked terrorist designations for the Houthis imposed by the outgoing Trump administration, desiring to ease humanitarian access to rebel-held areas. Critics saw it as more proof of the administration’s kid glove treatment of Iran’s dangerous proxies.
Either way, the Saudi argument that the Houthis represented a clear and present danger to regional security seemed to gain little traction in Washington. Far more focus was put on the kingdom’s heavy-handed prosecution of the war and the unfolding humanitarian emergency. Less attention went to investigating the radical ideology, terrorism links and Iranian ties of the Houthis themselves.
From Bad to Worse
In recent months, the Houthis have shattered any illusions about being an internal Yemeni faction with limited aims. A spree of drone and cruise missile attacks on the United Arab Emirates reminded that major Gulf powers are also in the crosshairs.
Most brazenly, the militants unleashed a maritime campaign targeting commercial vessels passing through the vital Bab al-Mandab strait at the mouth of the Red Sea. The Houthis have sempre to justify this piracy as retaliation for Israel’s conflict with Hamas. Few are convinced by the far-fetched explanation.
Instead, it lays bare the Houthis as an indiscriminate destabilizing force following Iran’s playbook of asymmetric warfare against energy exports and global commerce. Their actions threaten shipping routes through which billions in trade passes annually, including oil shipments from the Gulf.
The seizures have impacted commodities like coffee and food staples, deepening supply chain woes caused by the pandemic. The armed drone boats used in the Houthi attacks highlight sophisticated new capabilities almost certainly furnished by Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Despite supposedly favoring diplomacy with Iran, the Biden administration was compelled to act. It is currently leading a muscular multinational naval deployment to deter Houthi aggression in the Red Sea. This includes reprisal strikes on Houthi military facilities—ironically, some of the same targets the Saudis hit earlier in thw war to little applause from Washington.
In a final vindication of Saudi concerns, reports emerged in late 2022 that the U.S. was considering designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization again based on their maritime attacks. It underscores how seriously the threat is now being taken after years of U.S. underestimation and equivocation.
Iran’s Arab Proxies
Stepping back, the Houthi playbook echoes Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful regional proxy. Hezbollah carried out a similar maritime campaign in the 1980s targeting commercial vessels in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. The aim was to pressure foes and assert Tehran’s dominance in the waterways around the Arabian Peninsula that it considers its strategic domain.
Utilizing proxies provides Iran opportunities to harass enemies and project power while maintaining some degree of plausible deniability. The brazenness of the Houthi attacks suggests Iran now feels emboldened enough to escalate such provocations after facing no serious consequences for past actions.
Some analysts believe the maritime strikes are also meant to compete with Hezbollah for prominence within Tehran’s “axis of resistance” against Israel and the West. The Houthis may be seeking to burnish their jihadi credentials among other Iranian partner militias in Iraq and Syria which are better established and battle-hardened.
The timing and context matter too. The Houthis went on their maritime offensive shortly after Iran and Russia agreed to limit oil production to prop up prices—a pact opposed by the U.S. and its allies. The Red Sea seizures look like an Iranian message that if its oil exports are curtailed by sanctions, Tehran can reciprocate by disrupting energy shipments from the Arab Gulf monarchies.
Finally, Iran may calculate that with the U.S. focused on Russia and China, it has more room to assert itself militarily in the Middle East without repercussions. Testing red lines now sets precedents for further aggression down the road. The Houthis are the perfect instrument for such provocative proxy warfare.
What conclusions can be drawn? First and foremost, that Saudi Arabia correctly identified the malign threat posed by the Iran-backed Houthis from the outset. Second, that successive U.S. administrations erred in downplaying the Houthis as just one more faction in Yemen’s internal strife rather than a destabilizing Iranian proxy that threatened broader regional security.
To be sure, Saudi prosecution of the war against the militants was often heavy-handed and counterproductive. But the growing menace of the Houthis themselves was real. Their extremist ideology and asymmetric warfare targeting shipping lanes—key energy and economic chokepoints—affects global markets. Tehran is using Yemeni territory to expand its disruptive influence and systematically test Western red lines.
Perhaps these realities should have been clearer before the Houthis were allowed to consolidate an effective state-within-state in northern Yemen. Their patron Iran shares much of the blame for stoking chaos through its proxies. But hopes in some quarters that the Houthis could be pacified through diplomacy or concessions have proven naive.
The messy Yemen conflict contains no easy policy prescriptions. But restoring maritime security against brazen Houthi attacks is now an international priority. Their Arab backers have also been compelled into reluctant cooperation with the U.S. against a shared threat. It underlines how the Houthis are a consequential actor that must be confronted, not downplayed as localized rabble-rousers.
In fairness, Saudi Arabia has also used the war to sometimes further its own regional objectives beyond just countering the Houthis. And deeply flawed Saudi policies fueled the instability that allowed the Houthis to rise in the first place. Nevertheless, the Saudi monarchy identified from the outset the unique dangers posed by an Iranian-supported militia ruling the Arabian Peninsula’s soft underbelly.
Recent Houthi attacks have made clear that U.S. policymakers would be wise to see the Yemen conflict more through the lens of Riyadh than Tehran. That means grasping that the Houthis are not just one more faction in Yemen’s internal turmoil, but a militant Iranian proxy group that poses a potent threat to Middle East stability and international commerce.
Their extremist ideology, terorrism links and asymmetric warfare capabilities mirror Hezbollah. Underestimating them risks allowing Iran a strategic foothold in the Arabian Peninsula and worsening regional tensions.Belatedly coming to terms with the true nature of the Houthis is the first step toward developing a more coherent Yemen policy.