Iran is widely accused of backing the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004. The Houthis took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa (left) in September 2014 and seized control over much of north Yemen by 2016. Yemeni officials and Sunni states have repeatedly alleged that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have provided arms, training, and financial support to the Houthis. But Iranian and Hezbollah officials have denied or downplayed the claims. In November 2017, Revolutionary Guards commander Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari said that “Iran’s assistance is at the level of advisory and spiritual support.”
Tensions between Sunni states and Iran, specifically Saudi Arabia, escalated on November 4, 2017, when Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, the first time a Houthi missile had come so close to the capital. The Saudi Defense Ministry said it intercepted the missile. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir called the attack an act of war by Iran. "It was an Iranian missile, launched by Hezbollah, from territory occupied by the Houthis in Yemen," he said. U.S. President Donald Trump also accused the Islamic Republic. “A shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia…and our system knocked the missile out of the air,” he said. Tehran rebuffed the claims as “false, irresponsible, destructive and provocative.” In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah refuted allegations of the group’s involvement as “silly” and “completely baseless.” In response, Saudi Arabia imposed a near-total blockade on Yemen.
The leader of Yemen's Houthi rebels Abdul Malek al-Houthi has hailed the reported death of ex-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh as a "great and significant occasion". In a speech aired live on Al-Masirah TV, al-Houthi said his forces had thwarted a "conspiracy". pic.twitter.com/Sk2pavvTGd— BBC Monitoring (@BBCMonitoring) December 4, 2017
The situation further deteriorated when the Houthis killed ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 4, 2017. Saleh had officially aligned with the Houthis in May 2015, helping the Houthis gain control over much of northern Yemen. But the alliance was shaky at best. In August, one of Saleh’s top advisers was shot and killed following a confrontation with the Houthis. On December 2, Saleh publicly split from the Houthis, seeking a “new page” with the Saudi-led coalition. “I call upon the brothers in neighboring states and the alliance to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighborliness,” he said. Two days later he was killed by Houthi rebels in a roadside ambush.
Iranian officials celebrated Saleh’s death. Ali Akbar Salehi, a senior aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said Saleh got what he deserved, according to the Middle East Institute. Senior advisor Ali Akbar Velayti commented on the Yemeni people’s control over their own future. “Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed and United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia conspiracy was foiled by the people of Yemen. The people will determine their own fate and they will win like the people of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon,” he said.
The following is an overview of the Houthi movement, including its origins, religious inspiration and alleged links to Iran.
Where are the Houthis from? What role have they played in Yemen's history?
The Houthis are a large clan originating from Yemen’s northwestern Saada province. They practice the Zaydi form of Shiism. Zaydis make up around 35 percent of Yemen’s population.
A Zaydi imamate ruled Yemen for 1,000 years, before being overthrown in 1962. Since then, the Zaydis – stripped of their political power – have struggled to restore their authority and influence in Yemen. In the 1980s, the Houthi clan began a movement to revive Zaydi traditions, feeling threatened by state-funded Salafist preachers who established a base in Houthi areas. Not all Zaydis, however, align with the Houthi movement.
Houthi insurgents have clashed with Yemen’s government for more than a decade. Since 2011, the Houthi movement has expanded beyond its Zaydi roots and become a wider movement opposed to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The insurgents have also begun referring to themselves as Ansarullah, or “Party of God.”
How does Zaydism compare to the type of Shiism practiced in Iran?
Like other Shiites, Zaydis believe that only descendants of the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, have the right to lead the Muslim community as imams - divinely-appointed successors of the Prophet. Most adherents of Zaydism reside in Yemen, and Zaydis make up around eight percent of the world’s 70 million Shiites.
But the Zaydis are distinct from the “Twelver” form of Shiism practiced by the majority of the world’s Shiites, including most Shiites in Iran. Twelver Shiites believe the twelfth imam, whom they consider infallible, disappeared in 874AD and will one day return to usher in an age of justice as the Mahdi, or promised one. In the Mahdi’s absence, Twelver Shiites believe clerics can substitute for his authority on certain issues. The faithful are obliged to obey the clerics’ religious rulings, a power transferred to Iran’s theocracy after the 1979 revolution.
Zaydis, also known as “Fivers,” believe that Zayd, the great-grandson of Ali, was the rightful fifth imam. But Twelver Shiites consider Zayd’s brother, Mohammad al Baqir, the fifth imam. The Zaydis do not recognize the later Twelver imams, and instead believe anyone related to Ali is eligible to lead the Muslim community. They also reject the Twelver doctrine that the imam is infallible.
Who is supporting the Houthis? How?
Iranian officials have supported the Houthis’ cause and compared the group to Hezbollah. “Iran supports the rightful struggles of Ansarullah in Yemen and considers this movement as part of the successful Islamic Awakening movements,” Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in October 2014. But Tehran has repeatedly denied providing arms, funds or training to the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of arming the Houthis to fight a proxy war. “We are worried about…the tendencies of Iran in the region, which is one of the leading elements implanting instability in the region,” the late Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, said in 2015.
In October 2016, a U.S. admiral said that U.S. Navy and allied nations’ warships had intercepted five weapons shipments from Iran to the Arabian Peninsula since April 2015. The shipments reportedly included anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles and thousands of AK-47 automatic rifles. “These accusations are totally false,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi (left) said in response.
In April 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Iran supports the Houthis’ “attempted overthrow of the government by providing military equipment, funding, and training, thus threatening Saudi Arabia’s southern border.” In November 2017, however, Revolutionary Guards commander Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari claimed that “Iran’s assistance is at the level of advisory and spiritual support.”
Tensions over Iranian support of the Houthis escalated in late 2017. In November, Saudi Arabia charged Iran with an act of war for a missile fired at the Saudi capital by the Houthis in Yemen. Iran denied any links to the attack. But remnants of four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia by the Houthis on May 19, July 22, July 26 and November 4, 2017 appear to have been designed and manufactured by Iran, according to a confidential U.N. report from November 2017.
"The United States welcomes this report, as should every nation concerned about Iranian expansion," U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on December 14, in front of the remains of a missile allegedly fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia. "It was made in Iran, then sent to Houthi militants in Yemen. From there it was fired at a civilian airport, with the potential to kill hundreds of innocent civilians in Saudi Arabia."
Iranian officials and Houthi leaders denied U.S. claims. "After three years of war, America suddenly finds evidence that Iran supports the Houthis," a Yemeni spokesman said, according to Reuters. "America did not find any evidence in all the missiles fired from Yemen until now. The story is clear. They want to give Arabs a story to divert their attention from Jerusalem. Instead being angry at Israel, they wave the Iranian boy," he added.
While #Iran has been calling for ceasefire, aid and dialogue in #Yemen from day 1, US has sold weapons enabling its allies to kill civilians and impose famine. No amount of alternative facts or alternative evidence covers up US complicity in war crimes. (https://t.co/VALDSWgMUv) pic.twitter.com/7fkbIJs9MA— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) December 15, 2017
Fact sheet on why alternative facts and alternative evidence have no place in international relations: https://t.co/VALDSWgMUv— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) December 15, 2017
On the very day US regurgitates Saudi & Emirati propaganda on #Yemen, #CAR report confirms US & Saudi weapons end up in the hands of ISIS. With this U.S. administration, it seems hypocrisy knows no bounds. https://t.co/Gf7kAwieTE— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) December 15, 2017
On December 21, the U.S. State Department echoed Haley's allegations. "There is a very key relationship between the Iranians and the Houthis," Tim Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said. "I don’t want to overstate it. I don’t want to suggest that the Houthis operate entirely at the behest of the Iranians. But it’s an important relationship and one that the Iranians are able to exploit." Lenderking encouraged reporters to visit the display of missile remains and other military equipment that Haley highlighted the previous week.
The Houthis have other sources of support, however. They have reportedly received funding from local supporters and sympathetic charities as well as from illegal trade.
What are the Houthis' political views?
What are the roots of the Houthis' conflict with the central government?
How did the Houthis rise to power?
What is the relationship between Houthis and other Islamists in Yemen?
The Houthis have a tense relationship with Islah, a Sunni Islamist party with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah claims the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, and blames them for sparking unrest in Yemen. The Houthis, on the other hand, have accused Islah of cooperating with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
After the Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014, Islah initially took a few steps towards reconciliation. In November, top Islah and Houthi leaders met to discuss a political partnership. Islah called on the Houthis to cease attacks on Islah members and to release Islah prisoners. In December, the United Nations and Gulf Cooperation Council brokered a deal between the two groups to cease hostilities.
But clashes between the Houthis and Islah continued. In the first four months of 2015, the Houthis kidnapped dozens of Islah party leaders and raided their offices. By April, more than 100 Islah leaders were detained by the Houthis. Tensions increased after Islah declared support for the Saudi-led airstrikes.
The Houthis are also at odds with Sunni extremist groups. On March 20, 2015, an ISIS affiliate calling itself the Sanaa Province claimed responsibility for suicide bomb attacks on two Zaydi mosques that killed at least 135 people and injured more than 300 others. The group issued a statement that said “infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest until they eradicate them.”
AQAP denied involvement in the mosque attacks, but has frequently targeted the Houthis. In April 2015, the group claimed responsibility for three suicide attacks that killed dozens of Houthis in Abyan, al Bayda’, and Lahij. AQAP has reportedly partnered with southern tribes to fight the Houthis.
Who are their leaders?
Abdul Malik al Houthi, brother of Hussein al Houthi, has been the group’s spiritual, military, and political leader since 2007. Little is known of his personal life, and he makes few public appearances. His brother-in-law, Youssef al Midani, is the deputy leader. Abdul Malik’s two brothers, Yahia and Abdul-Karim, are also senior leaders of the movement.
On April 14, 2015 the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Abdul Malik al Houthi for engaging in acts that “threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen.” The same month, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo against the Houthis and blacklisted Abdul Malik al Houthi.
Timeline: The Houthis in Yemen
Sept. 21-22: Houthi rebels storm Sanaa and seize government buildings. The UN brokers a deal requiring Hadi to form a new government.
Nov. 1:Houthi rebels attack the al Islah party headquarters in the southwestern city of Ibb.
Nov. 7-8: Hadi announces a new cabinet, but the Houthis reject it.
Nov. 28: Houthi rebels and al Islah reach a deal agreeing to cease hostilities, but clashes between the groups continue.
Dec. 14: Houthi rebels blow up a building belonging to al Islah in Sanaa.
Dec. 20: Dozens of protestors gather in Sanaa to demand that Houthi rebels leave the capital. Houthis respond by abducting activist Shadi Khasrouf, who participated in the protests.
Jan. 22: Hadi resigns under pressure from Houthi rebels.
March 20: Suicide attacks targeting two Houthi mosques in Sanaa kill more than 130 people and injure more than 300 others.
March 26: Saudi Arabia begins launching airstrikes in Yemen, coordinating with a 10-nation coalition.
Sept. 22: Hadi returns to Aden after the Houthis are driven out.
Dec. 15: U.N.-sponsored peace talks begin in Geneva, Switzerland and a ceasefire goes into effect in Yemen.
April 21: U.N.-backed talks begin in Kuwait between the Houthis and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.
Aug. 7: U.N.-backed talks in Kuwait conclude without an agreement between the Houthis and Hadi’s government.
Oct. 19-21: War partiesagree to a 72-hour ceasefire, allowing for civilian access to humanitarian aid. The ceasefire holds for 3 days, and Saudi-led coalition airstrikes recommence shortly after the truce expires.
Oct. 27: U.N. Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed proposes a new peace plan aimed at ending the conflict. It calls for members of the internationally-recognized Hadi government to step down or accept diminished roles in exchange for a Houthi withdrawal from major cities.
Oct. 31: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, calls for an end to indiscriminate Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen.
Nov. 29: The Houthis and members of the ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress form a new 35-minister government based in Sanaa.
Jan. 18: A Houthi strike kills six civilians in the central city of Taiz, just one day after the killing of six other civilians outside of the city.
Jan. 30: Three Houthi suicide boats attack a Saudi frigate off the Hodeida port in the Red Sea, killing two crew members and wounding three others.
Jan. 31: The Houthis’ official news agency says they launched a ballistic missile at a Saudi-led coalition military base on the Red Sea island of Zuqar on Monday, countering the Saudi claim of a suicide attack.
Feb. 22: A senior Yemeni army general is killed in a missile attack by the Houthis.
March 25: A court in Houthi-controlled territory sentences President Hadi and six other government officials to death for “high treason.”
May 19: Yemen’s Houthi movement says it fired a ballistic missile towards Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh. The Saudi-led coalition says it intercepted the missile 200 km west of the city.
May 30: Oman mediates between the Saudi-backed Hadi government and the Houthi rebels over a U.N. plan for peace talks.
June 5: The Houthis ban U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed for abandoning his neutrality and not respecting U.N. resolutions, according to Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam.
June 15: Houthi rebels fire a missile at a United Arab Emirates ship carrying medical supplies in the Red Sea. One person is injured in the attack.
The U.N. urges warring parties in Yemen to agree to a U.N.-negotiated deal over the management of port city Hodeidah and resuming government salary payments.
June 17: The Saudi-backed Yemen government agrees to the U.N. two-point solution regarding the Hodeidah port.
July 22: The Houthis fire a Burkan-2 ballistic missile at an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia.
July 26: Houthi rebels launch a Scud missile, targeting at an oil facility near the port city of Yanbu in Saudi Arabia.
July 29: The Houthis claim an attack on a United Arab Emirates ship off the western coast of Yemen. No casualties or damage are reported.
Aug. 23: Houthi fighters call their main ally, ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, “evil” and condemn his description of them as a “militia.” The statements highlight a growing rift between Saleh and the Houthis.
Aug. 24: Ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh holds a mass rally in Sanaa to celebrate 35 years since the founding of the General People’s Congress (GPC) party.
Aug. 27: Yemeni colonel and close adviser to Saleh is killed in clashes with Houthi rebels at a check-point in the southern neighborhood of Hadda.
Aug. 31: Former president Saleh demands the arrest of the Houthi gunmen who killed his close adviser.
Early Sept.: Leaders from Saleh’s GPC party and the Houthis meet to fix the rift between both groups.
Sept. 24: President Hadi says that a military solution is more likely to solve Yemen’s crisis. “The military solution is the more likely one for the Yemen crisis in light of the intransigence of the Houthi and Saleh coup militias which continue to take orders from Iran,” Hadi says in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Sept. 25: Yemen’s Houthi forces detain a U.S. citizen in Sanaa.
Oct. 1: The Houthis say they shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in the capital of Sanaa.
Oct. 29: Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir says Iran is blocking peace efforts in Yemen and is still smuggling weapons to the Houthis.
Nov. 4: Saudi Arabia says it intercepted a ballistic missile that was fired from Yemen near King Khaled Airport in Riyadh.
Nov. 6: Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh airport.
Nov. 7: Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir charges Iran with an act of war following the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh.
The Saudi-led coalition closes all air, land and sea ports to the Arabian Peninsula in order to stem the flow of supplies and arms to the Houthis from Iran.
Nov. 8: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says the Houthi missile attack on Saudi Arabia was a reaction to Saudi aggression. “How should the Yemeni people react to bombardment of their country. So they are not allowed to use their own weapons? You stop the bombardment first and see if the Yemenis would not do the same,” Rouhani says.
The White House condemns the Houthi missile attack on Saudi Arabia that occurred on November 4.
Nov. 12: The Houthis threaten to attack warships and oil tankers in retaliation for Saudi Arabia closing Yemen’s ports.
Nov. 22: The Saudi-led coalition says it going to reopen Yemen’s Hodeida port to allow humanitarian aid through to the capital of Sanaa.
Nov. 24: Remannts of four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia by the Houthis appear to have been designed and manufactured in Iran, a confidential U.N. report says.
Dec. 2: Ali Abdullah Saleh publicly splits from his alliance with the Houthis. He calls for a “new page” in his relationship with the Saudi-led coalition.
Dec. 4: Ex-president Saleh is killed by the Houthis in a roadside ambush near Sanaa.
Dec. 19: Saudi Arabia intercepts a ballistic missile over southern Riyadh. The Houthis claim responsibility for the attack, which was targeting the royal Yamama Palace in the capital. No damage is reported.
Jan. 9: Houthi rebels threatened to block the Red Sea shipping lane if the Saudi-led coalition keeps moving towards the Hodeidah port. “If the aggressors keep pushing toward Hodeidah and if the political solution hits wall, there are some strategic choices that will be taken as a no return point, including blocking the international navigation in the Red Sea,” Houthis’ Ansarullah political council chief, Saleh al-Samad, said.
Jan. 10: The Saudi-led coalition said it foiled an attack on a Saudi oil tanker by Houthi fighters near the Hodeidah port. The coalition destroyed a boat carrying explosives headed towards the tanker, coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Maliki said.
Jan. 11: The Houthis fired a ballistic missile at a special forces camp and a facility for helicopter gunships in the Saudi border province of Najran. Saudi air defence forces shot down the missile mid-air without any casualties, Colonel Turki al-Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said.
Jan. 16: Houthi rebels said they fired a short-range ballistic missile toward a regional airport in the Saudi border province of Jazan. Saudi defense forces said they shot down the missile over Jazan. "This hostile action by the Houthi group, which is backed by Iran, proves the Iranian regime's continuous support for the armed Houthi group by providing them with capabilities, which is in violation of UN resolutions," said spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Colonel Turki al-Malki.
Jan. 18: The Houthis fired a missile into the border province of Najran in Saudi Arabia. The missile targeted an air defense operations center and inflicted heavy damage to an air defense base in the Khadhra crossing point in Najran.
Photo credits: Houthi logo by Takahara Osaka [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons; Sanaa by Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; Yemen: Who controls what via Al Jazeera using LiveUAMap, Houthi militants in 2015 by Tyler Hicks/The New York Times (home page tile)