OP-ED

Iran’s Yemen Play

What Tehran Wants—And What It Doesn’t

Iran may have been happy to see Yemen’s pro-Western government ousted last January, but Tehran’s influence there is far more limited than many assume.

When the Houthis, a Shia’a rebel group in Yemen, forced the country’s pro-Western president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to flee the capital this past January, many in the region concluded that another Arab state had fallen into Tehran’s lap—a result, as one prominent commentator put it, of Iran’s “offensive state, the likes of which we have not seen in modern history.”

That fear, articulated most forcefully by the Gulf states, probably overstates Iran’s role; turf wars have troubled Yemen for decades, and Tehran has never been a kingmaker there. It is true, however, that the Islamic Republic’s footprints have always marked Yemeni soil, even in the days of the Shah, who supported Yemeni fighters against militant Marxists in the 1960s. And that is still the case today. So, even if the coup itself says little about Iran’s regional ambitions, what Tehran does next—or what it doesn’t do—will be telling nonetheless.

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

The Islamic Republic first gravitated toward Yemen in the late 1980s, following the conclusion of the Iran–Iraq war. When Yemen and Saudi Arabia fell out in 1990 over Sanaa’s decision to side with Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Tehran seized the opportunity to cultivate closer ties.

But Yemen was still too inconsequential to merit much of Iran’s attention, and so Iran’s influence during this period was mostly ideological. In the early 1990s, for example, Iran hosted Houthi religious students, who reportedly returned to Yemen inspired by Tehran’s anti-Western revolutionary message. Among those students was Hussein Badr Al-Deen Houthi, who led the Houthi movement until his capture and death in 2004, and borrowed Iranian rhetoric to coin the group’s motto: “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

Direct Iranian intervention in Yemeni affairs is a more recent development. From 2004 to 2010, the Houthis fought six wars with the government of the country’s Saudi-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Gulf States, alarmed by Tehran’s rising regional star following the fall of Saddam in 2003, accused Tehran of providing the Houthis with material support. Independent analysts, however, were skeptical. As Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group, put it in 2004, “The Iranians are just brilliant. They play no role whatsoever [in Yemen], but they get all the credit, and so they are capitalizing on it.”

ALEX VATANKA is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.