The following article is part of MEI’s special series, “The Houthis: Iran’s Most Distant Ally,” which analyzes the dynamics behind the Iranian-Houthi relationship, identifies the interests and challenges faced by both sides in maintaining their cooperation, charts their impact on regional security, and offers policy recommendations for how the US and other governments should respond.

Ansar Allah, the Yemen-based militant group commonly referred to as the Houthis, is arguably the latest and largest addition to the Iran-led Axis of Resistance. The Iranian regime’s links to the Houthis predate the Yemeni civil war that erupted in 2014, but there is no doubt that relations have deepened in a strategic sense over the course of the last decade.

Still, to equate the Houthis to other members of the Axis — such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or pro-Iran militant proxy groups in Iraq — is misleading, as it exaggerates Tehran’s ideological and operational hold over this Yemeni movement. Meanwhile, present tensions in the Red Sea illustrate both the utility of the Houthis for Tehran’s anti-American and anti-Israel regional agenda as well as the challenges their actions can create for the Iranians.

Tehran’s calculations

For Tehran, the Axis of Resistance model offers clear advantages as long as three key characteristics are maintained: First, it must provide Iran regional power projection and geopolitical leverage at a relatively low direct financial cost. Second, by keeping some deliberate distance, Tehran has to be able to maintain deniability regarding the actions of its regional proxy allies. And third, the modus operandi of the model has to be a war of attrition, intended to keep the Iranian homeland safe from any blowback while exhausting Tehran’s adversaries.

If Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — arguably the principal patron of the Axis model — is to be taken at his word, Tehran and its proxy allies must avoid direct confrontation with Israel and the United States. One can argue that this has also been Hezbollah’s stance toward Israel for now: a willingness to engage in low-intensity attacks on the border but no overt commitment to enter the war on the side of Hamas.

The Iranians created Hezbollah from scratch some four decades ago, and the sectarian and ideological ties between the two today overlap extensively. By contrast, the Houthi-Iran relationship is not nearly as old or cemented. This reality makes it that much more important for the latter pair to be able to coordinate their actions with regard to attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Tehran, in particular, has considerably more to lose if the actions of the Houthis lead the US and the West to retaliate against Iran for its material backing of the Houthi movement.

Evolution of Iran’s Houthi relations

In March 2023, Tehran and Riyadh signed a diplomatic agreement in Beijing aimed at de-escalating regional tensions. For its part, the Iranian side reportedly agreed to end weapons transfers to the Houthis. The eventuality of such a quid pro quo had been anticipated as far back as 2014-15, when Tehran first started supporting the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war, in which the Saudis militarily backed the anti-Houthi Yemeni state forces. For Iran, the rise of the Houthis on the distant, southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula following the Arab Spring offered an instrument of flanking pressure against Riyadh at a time of intense Iranian-Saudi power competition.

Yet to legitimize the development of this remote relationship, an Iranian narrative had to be constructed. Pro-regime media outlets thus began to promote the idea that Iran’s Islamist message had first captivated the Yemenis in the 1980s, shortly after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic in 1979. This was not true: Yemen was not a factor for Tehran in the 1980s. If anything, Tehran was at that point politically closer to the Marxists who ruled over what was then South Yemen than to the population or religious authorities in North Yemen, the ancestral home of the Zaidi sect, from which the Houthi movement subsequently arose.

Notably, Iran never cultivated former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was Zaidi, in a serious way in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, Yemen was not part of Iran’s core mission to recruit like-minded Islamists, as in Lebanon and Iraq. Nor is there much evidence that Iran played a major role in the Yemeni wars between 2004 and 2010. That said, small groups of Zaidis — such as Hussein al-Houthi, who gave his name to the movement — did begin to visit Iran from the early 1990s. These contacts gradually multiplied over the years. The influence of Iran in shaping Houthi religious doctrine and political ideology is, therefore, undeniable, even as its extent remains under debate.

It was only after the regional turmoil of the Arab Spring in2011 and Saleh’s fall in 2012 that Tehran finally began to see the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen as possibly fertile ground for Iran’s political messaging and military support. From the moment Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemeni civil war in March 2015, US officials accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Hezbollah of training and arming the local Houthis. This line of materiel support continued unabated; and with time, the Houthis managed to exhaust Riyadh to the point that it began looking for ways to end its intervention and withdraw from Yemen. Accordingly, a ceasefire between the Houthis and the Saudis has been in place since April 2022.

Tehran has good reason to consider its investment in the Houthis to have been worthwhile, therefore: it generated the leverage Tehran had hoped for and, ultimately, built up pressure on the Saudis to agree to a diplomatic truce with the Iranians in March 2023.

Where from here?

The Houthis continued to showcase their usefulness during the Israel-Hamas war by launching drones and missiles at Israel and against (purportedly Israeli-linked) shipping in the Red Sea, designed to shape the calculations of the Israeli government and the Western world in general. But although the extent of Tehran’s operational influence over such Houthi actions is unknown, two facts are hard to deny.

First, the Houthis are highly likely receiving both material support and training from Iran and Hezbollah, including on how to launch complex drone and anti-ship missile attacks in the Red Sea, according to United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Second, the Houthis and Iran both want an immediate ceasefire in Gaza for humanitarian reasons but also to salvage what is left of Hamas’ military wing following three months of Israeli onslaught.

This is a high-risk game, as more and more voices in Washington call for Iran to be held accountable. The Houthis have, since Nov. 19, attacked commercial shipping in the Red Sea on 26 occasions. It has not been indiscriminate: the priority are ships linked to Israel, while oil tankers have been spared. Still, Western warnings are sufficiently worrisome for Tehran that Iranian officials have repeatedly denied being involved in Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping.

Only a few years ago, pro-regime commentators in Tehran boasted that Iran would soon control not one but two critical maritime choke points for international trade: the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandab. But when the chips are down, and as tensions rise in the Red Sea, it remains to be seen if the Iranian regime is really prepared to risk open conflict with the United States — and whether it has the sufficient clout over the Houthis to ask them to stand down for now.


Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute and a Senior Fellow with MEI’s Black Sea Program.

Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

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