In 2004, a group called Ansar Allah—also known as the Houthis, after the tribe that dominates the movement—launched an insurgency against the government of Yemen, and in 2014 seized the capital city of Sanaa. Since then, a bloody civil war has engulfed the country, with Iran backing the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and (until recently) the U.S. backing their opponents.
The Houthis—whose motto is “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews. Victory for Islam”—belong to the Zaydi sect of Shiism, which has allowed observers to argue that their alliance with the Islamic Republic, loyal to the rival form of Shiism, is purely transactional. While this view of things has become established wisdom in American policymaking circles since the George W. Bush administration, and informs the current administration’s attempts to “end the war” in Yemen, Oved Lobel shows through a careful investigation of Ansar Allah’s history and development that it has been an Iranian proxy from its inception:
Rather than Iran reacting to events in Yemen and slowly forming an alliance with the Houthis after 2009 in response to Saudi Arabia’s overt involvement [in the war against them], there is more than enough evidence . . . to assess that Iran has controlled the conflict since the early 2000s, engaging in precisely the same patterns of co-opting local grievances, creating proxies, and orchestrating schisms as has been witnessed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Far from being a tactical Iranian sideshow to undermine Saudi Arabia in reaction to Riyadh’s intervention [in Yemen], as it is often portrayed by analysts, the Iranian relationship with the Houthis is in fact Iran’s first opportunity since the revolution in 1979 to impose an exact replica of its own theocracy—something it ultimately failed to do in Iraq and Lebanon—and thus the most important battlefront against Iran’s attempts to export its revolution today.
Following the U.S. declaration of war against transnational jihadists and any state that supported them, the long-time ruler and president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, planted himself firmly in the U.S. camp and began cooperating against al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Iran, therefore, activated [Ansar Allah] to undermine the campaign against al-Qaeda.
Another dead giveaway that the conflict had absolutely nothing to do with domestic grievances was the [Houthis’] ethnic cleansing of the small Jewish community in their areas of control in 2007. The conspiratorial and religious hatred of Jews is such a core part of [their] ideology that, as recently as 2020, one Houthi official said, “The only path is the path to Jerusalem, the path of jihad against the Jews. . . . Enmity towards them is the number one criterion for the believing [Muslim].”
Lobel’s conclusions suggest that the war in Yemen is not the simple result of ancient hatreds between Sunnis and Shiites, nor can it be deescalated by ending American and Saudi involvement. Rather, it is merely one theater in Iran’s war against the U.S.