They may follow different branches of Shia Islam, but Yemen’s Houthis are tied to Iran through a shared political ideology and a worldview of opposition to Saudi Arabia and Western “imperialism,” argues Baraa Shiban
In December 2017, Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, hosted a news conference to demonstrate how Iran was interfering in Yemen’s affairs by providing military support to Ansarullah, the militia of Yemen’s Houthis fighting a Saudi-Emirati coalition.
Haley showed the media debris from a ballistic missile that had been launched from Yemen and intercepted in Saudi airspace above the capital Riyadh. The components of the missile carried some unique characteristics that clearly tied its origins to Iran.
The news conference was just one example of many of mounting evidence that Iran has become a principal backer of Ansarullah in order to allow Tehran to gain a toehold, through its Yemeni ally, on the southern flank of its regional enemy, Saudi Arabia.
Yet many researchers and journalists still voice skepticism of the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Yemen. An often-heard argument is that the Houthis of Ansarullah are of a different religious sect than Hezbollah in Lebanon or al Hashd ash Shaabi in Iraq and therefore cannot have the same relationship with Iran.
This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the links between Ansarullah and its predecessor movements on the one hand, and the 1979 Iranian revolution on the other. Religion is not the driving force behind their union. It is political ideology and a shared world view, specifically pertaining to what the Islamic world’s natural relationship with the West should be.
In a speech in February 2002, Hussein Baddruddin al Houthi, a founding member of the Houthi movement, praised Iran’s Islamic revolution and warned that all those that opposed it – Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – had suffered militarily and economically as a consequence.
“Today Yemen is following the same footsteps in fighting [for] the Islamic revolution,” he said. “
Post-1979 Iran carries an ideology that shapes its regional and international relations: Iran is the world’s Islamic hegemony that should empower local groups and insurgents in the region to stand against Western-backed governments. Since Saudi Arabia is the strongest American ally in the region, after Israel, and the Houthis are ideologically opposed to the Kingdom, Iran views the Houthis as ideal recipients of their logistical and material support. The Houthi capacity today to routinely fire ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia is a direct result of this relationship.
“Iran views the Houthis as ideal recipients of their logistical and material support”
In order to better understand Iran’s interest in the Houthis, and how their relationship is founded in politics – not religion – one must first explain how the Houthis came to be.
The majority of Houthis belong to the Zaydi sect, a Shiite school of thought found in Yemen and distinct from Twelver Shiism followed by Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and al Hashd ash Shaabi in Iraq. It emerged in the eighth century as an offshoot of the more established Twelver Shia sect and is named after Zayd ibn Ali, grandson of Hussein ibn Ali.
It is commonly believed that the Houthi movement was founded in 1992 by Hussein Badr al Deen al Houthi. However, the movement’s roots go back a decade earlier to 1982, three years after the Iranian Revolution. In 1986, the renowned Yemeni scholar, Salah Ahmed Faleetah, founded the Youth Union. The union taught the Zaydi school of thought to high school students during their summer vacation. One of the mandatory courses, taught by Mohammed Badr al Deen al Houthi, a prominent religious figure among Zaydi followers, focused on the principles of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
In 1990, Yemen went through significant political change. After the unification of North and South Yemen, the new Yemeni constitution allowed for political pluralism and the creation of new political parties. More than 60 political parties, which represented a range of ideologies across the political spectrum, came into existence. The most significant parties were the General People’s Congress (GPC), Yemen Congress for Reform (Islah Party) and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). These three groups were key players in the formation of the al Haq party, which represented northern Zaydi identity out of fear that it would fade away due to the political structure created after the unification of Yemen.
Two years later, a former member of the al Haq party, Mohammed Badr al Deen al Houthi formed a new group called the al Shabab al Moamen movement, “The Believing Youth”, since he considered that the al Haq party had not fulfilled his ambitions. The movement quickly gained momentum among Zaydi followers.
Hussein Badr al Deen al Houthi, a representative of the al Haq party, joined his brother Mohammed’s al Shabab al Moamen movement and was given a high-ranking position. Hussein’s leading role helped him shape the movement into what it is today.
Hussein greatly revered his father Badr al Deen al Houthi, a senior scholar within the Zaydi sect in Yemen, and embraced his father’s veneration for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution and first Supreme Leader of the country. Hussein, like his father Badr al Houthi, considered Khomeini a savior of the entire Muslim world.
In 1993, Hussein al Houthi entered parliament as an al Haq party member and remained there for four years. In 1995, he traveled with his father to Iran. After their return, Hussein decided to devote himself completely to the al Shabab al Moamen movement and in 1997 yielded his parliamentary seat to his brother Yahia.
But a year later, divisions erupted within the al Shabab al Moamen leadership. Some members viewed Hussein’s views as too radical and not in accordance with the movement’s objectives.
“Hussein al Houthi was making the movement less tolerant and more confrontational against other Islamic sects”
“Hussein al Houthi was making the movement less tolerant and more confrontational against other Islamic sects,” Mohammed Azzan, a founder of al Shabab Moamen, told The Brief.
Traditionally, Yemenis have managed to coexist even though there is a diversity of Islamic sects in the country. They range from Sufis, mostly present in the eastern province of Hadhramout, who follow a more spiritual path and have their own religious schools, to the Sunni Shafi school of thought present in central and south Yemen. The country also contains some minority groups like the Ismailis, Jews and the Bahai community. However, increasingly, Zaydism was become linked solely to the ideology espoused by Hussein al Houthi.
In 2000, divisions within the movement reached breaking point. Hussein al Houthi successfully took over the movement with the help of his brother, Mohammed, and Abdullah al Razami, who was soon to play an important role in the Saadah wars.
Hussein al Houthi wanted to create a new political ideology similar to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon and al Dawa in Iraq. He started by preaching Khomeini’s ideology in summer camps and schools similar to the activities of the Youth Union in the 1980s. Hussein al Houthi encouraged his followers to confront their opponents head-on, according to Mohammed Azzan. Al Houthi’s followers verbally attacked their adversaries within the Zaydi sect, which eventually led to armed clashes with the state. Saadah quickly became too dangerous for non-believers. In 2004, tensions peaked as Houthi followers clashed with local tribes, instigating the first war in Saadah with Yemen’s armed forces. Hussein al Houthi died in the first war of Saadah in 2004.
The founders of al Shabab al Moamen feared that the Zaydi sect would fade as other Islamic movements became active across Yemen. To sustain al Shabab al Moamen, group members opened summer camps to teach Islamic sciences with a focus on the Zaydi school of thought.
From 1994, Ali Abdullah Saleh – the former Yemeni president – decided to fund the al Shabab al Moamen summer camps as a counterweight against the influence of the Islah party in the north, Saleh’s main political opponent. Saleh believed in a divide-and-rule approach by setting Islamist parties in Yemen against each other. The Saleh government’s directed funding of al Shabab al Moamen allowed the Houthi movement to expand its influence which led to some unhappiness within the GPC, Saleh’s political party, especially those from Saadah.
Othman Mujali, senior tribal leader from Saadah and GPC member of parliament, first warned Saleh in 1998 not to trust al Shabab al Moamen. Mujali felt that the movement was becoming more Iranian. Iranian revolution slogans and Hezbollah flags were plastered on the sides of buildings, balconies and street signs. The intense local admiration for the Lebanese organization resulted in the opening of a Hezbollah branch in Saadah. The religious schools turned to training militiamen using Hezbollah’s methodology instead of teaching the Koran and Islamic studies at the summer camps as had been intended.
“Many Yemenis began discussing Iran’s involvement in Yemen in 2014, following the Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa”
According to Fahd al Sharafi, another senior GPC member from Saadah, many Yemenis began discussing Iran’s involvement in Yemen in 2014, following the Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa.
“For the people of Saadah, the signs of Iran were all over the province since early 2000,” he said. “The flags of Hezbollah were on every corner and Friday protests were just another Iranian protest with their famous Khomeini slogan, ‘Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews and Victory for Islam’.”
In 2001, Hussein al Houthi and his associates removed Mohammed Azzan and other Zaydi scholars from al Shabab al Moamen leadership and dissolved the movement. Hussein began teaching from his own books and conducting his own sermons, although they were merely versions of Khomeini’s own works. Hussein’s teachings focused on two main ideas. First, all the woes and challenges facing the Muslim world are due to the West, and the only way to confront the West with success is to adopt the tactics of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. Second, the right to rule can only be passed down through descendants of Prophet Mohammed, a belief shared by other Zaydi scholars. Although the majority of Houthis are Zaydis, many believe in Khomeini’s ideology. The Houthis believe that their movement is part of the Islamic Revolution, the means by which the Muslim world will rise up against the West. Hussein’s books reiterate anti-Western messaging similar to al Qaeda propaganda, clearly demonstrated by his books, “Terrorism and Islam” and “The Danger of America in Yemen”.
Iran doesn’t necessarily need the Houthis to become Shia Twelvers to provide financial and armed support. The Houthis share Iran’s ideology. The Houthis, like the Iranian regime, believe that they are on an Islamic mission to rid the Muslim world of Western and American imperialism. They believe that the Islamic revolution started in Iran by Khomeini has no borders and will continue to grow and expand across the Muslim world. Therefore, the Muslim world will unite over the ruins of the West. Iran believes that supporting the Houthis is part of its role as an Islamic revolution.
Baraa Shiban is a Yemeni human rights activist. He is a researcher for the human rights organization Reprieve and previously served as the organization’s Project Coordinator in Yemen.