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Who’s Behind the Houthis?

A proxy war in Yemen.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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The preponderance of evidence suggests a significant relationship between Tehran and the Houthis. But even if Yemeni and Saudi claims of Iranian support to the rebels are overstated, given Tehran’s track record, it seems likely that Iran is playing some role in fanning the flames of insurgency in Yemen.

Washington has not yet implicated Tehran. But the administration may be moving in that direction. On January 21, the commander of U.S. forces in the region, General David Petraeus, suggested that “some indicators” could point to Iranian involvement in the conflict. Then, on January 31, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told Al-Hayat that while Washington takes the accusations seriously, “we do not have evidence that the Iranian interference with the Houthis is as deep as is the case with Hezbollah.” Feltman is among the finest and most candid of U.S. diplomats. So it is noteworthy that he does not outright deny Iranian involvement. In fact, his analogy seems to confirm it.

It is possible—as Yemeni officials claim—that U.S. efforts to date to downplay this issue are related to a desire not to undermine talks over Tehran’s nuclear program. This explanation, while troubling, would comport with the Obama administration’s hesitancy to back Iraq’s accusations of Syrian complicity in the August 2009 bombings in Baghdad that killed more than 100, for fear criticism of Damascus would scuttle U.S. efforts to engage with the Assad regime.

However much support Iran may be providing the Houthis, Washington’s allies in Riyadh and Cairo increasingly view the conflict in Yemen as a fight with Iran. In a region mired in conflicts with Iran, Yemen would appear to be the latest battleground. 

In the coming weeks, the United States is slated to boost its 200-strong Special Forces training contingent already in Yemen. Not only will U.S. soldiers be targeted by the Houthis—based on a January 14 fatwa against foreign troops signed by 150 non-Houthi clerics including a member of parliament—U.S. forces could also find themselves in the sights of average Yemenis. 

The troop deployment to train Yemeni forces represents not only a burgeoning counterterrorism partnership with Sana, but an opportunity to contain Iranian expansion in the Gulf. In this increasingly complex and dangerous environment, the sooner Washington understands the degree to which the Houthi are Iranian surrogates, the better able the U.S. forces there will be to counter the threat and mitigate the risk of another failed Middle East state.

David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program in Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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