Houthis are Iran’s pragmatic partners, not just a proxy

In recent weeks, the United States and its allies have carried out dozens of airstrikes against the Houthis to deplete the missile and drone arsenal of the Yemeni group.

But American officials concede that they still don’t know how much Houthi weapons are hidden in underground stockpiles that the Iran-linked group had been using to target cargo and navy vessels in the Red Sea.

The Houthis, who fought a years-long war against a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, say they are going after ships in response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza where more than 28,900 people, most of them women and children, have been killed.

Besides their resilience, what has put the spotlight on the Houthis is their close ties with Iran. Tehran supports a network of groups across the region, known as the "Shia Crescent" or "Axis of Resistance."

This includes armed groups in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon along with the Yemeni Houthis.

There is a common belief that the Houthis are not much more than proxies for Iran. But this view oversimplifies their relationship. It overlooks that the ties between Iran and the Houthis are complex and ever-changing, not just a straightforward case of control and influence.

It’s crucial to understand why seeing the Houthis as merely Iran's proxies misses the bigger, more dynamic picture of their alliance.

More than a proxy
Iran's relationship with the Houthis is a complex blend of politics, ideology, and strategy and not a one-way street of influence.

Recognising this intricate web is crucial to understanding the dynamics at play in the Middle East, beyond the oversimplified idea of proxy relationships.

The Iran-Houthi interaction is based on mutual interests and shared goals, making their relationship more of a partnership than a puppet show.

The simplistic view of the Houthi-Iran relationship suggests that Iran completely controls the Houthis, much like its influence on Shia groups in Iraq.

This perspective paints the Houthis as mere tools of Iran, unable to make their own decisions or have their own identity.

These ideas ignore the domestic motivations of the Houthis in the war in Yemen and also their desire to become a transnational actor. This common perception also portrays the relationship between the two actors as one-sided, with Iran calling all the shots in a top-down manner.

However, this narrative misses the bigger picture. It overlooks the evolving nature of their partnership and the broader regional and international context. This oversimplification risks misunderstanding the true dynamics at play, reducing a complex and changing relationship to a static and one-dimensional model.

A pragmatic relationship
It is crucial to understand what the Houthi-Iran relationship entails. While it is clear that the Houthis and Iran cooperate, with the UN reporting the transfer of technology, military hardware, and expertise from Iran to Houthi groups, there is more to this relationship.

It is not just about the tangible support - it is also about why the two sides cooperate. Their connection seems to be rooted in shared political stance, like opposition to imperialism, the United States, and Israel.

This suggests a political alignment, especially in foreign policy matters, that goes beyond only practical support the Houthis receive from Iran.

The religious aspect of the Iran-Houthi relationship is more complicated than it seems. Iran follows Twelver Shia Islam, while the Houthis belong to Zaidi Shia, a branch quite different in beliefs and history.

However, there are claims that the Houthis are adopting more Twelver Shia practices, influenced by their growing connections with Iran. Even in this case, it is worth noting that Zaidis have traditionally been closer to Sunni Islam and have a long history of coexistence with Sunni groups, especially in Yemen. This raises questions about the true basis of the Iran-Houthi alliance.

It suggests that their partnership might be driven more by political and strategic interests than religious alignment. Therefore, one might suggest that shared religious beliefs are not the primary driving force behind their alliance.

The Iran-Houthi alliance is, at its core, about practical benefits for both sides. For Iran, it’s a strategic move. By backing the Houthis, Iran aims to extend its influence in key areas like the Gulf of Aden, Bab al Mandeb, and the Red Sea. The military support, funding, and political backing that Iran provides to the Houthis underline this pragmatic partnership.

On the other hand, the Houthis have instrumentalised this support to strengthen their hold in Yemen, where they now control a large chunk of territory, which is home to the majority of the population. This has not only solidified their role in the war in Yemen but also elevated them from a local force to a player on the international stage.

Their recent actions in the Red Sea and transnational solidarity with Palestine mark a new chapter in their evolution. It suggests that the Houthis are looking beyond being seen as merely Iran's proxies, as they navigate their political future.

The Houthis' current engagement in peace talks with countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia signals a turning point. These negotiations, focusing on ending the conflict in Yemen, are revealing new facets of the Houthi movement. That is why the Saudis and the wider Gulf, except Bahrain, seemed reluctant to show support for the US and UK airstrikes on the Houthis.

There is more to growing Saudi-Houthi relations at this point. Following the recent negotiations with Oman and Saudi Arabia, critical Houthi figures like Abdul Malik al Houthi, Mahdi al Mashat, and Mohammed al Bukhaiti are steering the movement towards political reforms, notably by gradually distancing themselves from "anti-Saudi elements" within their ranks.

This shift in the Houthi strategy complicates the common perception of them as mere puppets of Iran. It shows that their relationship with Iran, while strong, is not set in stone.

The Houthis are demonstrating an ability to adapt and respond to the evolving political landscape, a trait increasingly common in international relations today. Rather than sticking to rigid roles, they are showing flexibility as an actor in the Middle East, a crucial aspect in the complex world of geopolitics.

This article was previously published on February 20, 2024, on TRT World website titled " Houthis are Iran’s pragmatic partners, not just a proxy".