On Wednesday, February 1, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn spoke at the conclusion of the daily press briefing in Washington, DC. Flynn issued a brief statement in which he implied that Iran is directly responsible for the Houthi rebels’ January 31 attack on a Saudi frigate. This attack—and what Flynn clearly regards as a high level of Iranian support for the Houthis—was part of the justification for Flynn’s concluding remark in which he announced that the U.S. is “officially putting Iran on notice.”
While the January 31 attack in question was carried out by the Houthis, no evidence of Iranian involvement in the attack has been provided. The Houthis, along with a significant percentage of the Yemeni Army, have been at war with Saudi Arabia and its allies for two years. Saudi Arabia, with U.S. support, has engaged in a brutal bombing campaign that has targeted everything from critical infrastructure to factories and farms. The Saudis are also enforcing a naval blockade of Yemen that is contributing to a widespread famine. Despite little evidence, the Saudis claim the Houthis are Iranian proxies. The Saudis are supporting Yemen’s unpopular—but internationally recognized—government in exile.
The interests of the Houthis and Iran align in many areas: for example, both fear the spread of radical Sunni Islam. However, there is little evidence of direct and sustained Iranian support for the Houthis. While it is frequently claimed that Iran is supplying the Houthis with weapons, Yemen was already one of the most heavily armed countries on the planet before the start of the Saudi-led war there. During two years of war, Saudi Arabia and its partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have poured weapons and materiel into the country. Yemen is now a true arms emporium. The militias that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have armed and support are often badly organized, and their loyalties are fluid. Many of the weapons supplied to these groups end up in Yemen’s arms markets, where they are sold on to whoever can pay.
As for the claim that Iran is supporting the Houthis by providing military expertise and training, such support—if it exists—is likely limited. Long before the start of the current war, the Houthis were already some of the finest guerrilla fighters in the region. They honed their skills during six brutal wars with the Yemeni government from 2004–2010. Now, much of the Houthi organization is integrated with the best-trained (thanks largely to the United States) units of the Yemeni Army.
Perhaps more importantly, the Houthis are a fiercely independent organization. They are distinctly Yemeni and deeply rooted in the socio-cultural context of northwest Yemen. They have repeatedly ignored advice from Iran. For example, the Iranian government warned the Houthis not to go on the offensive and advised them not to seize the Yemeni capital. In September 2014, the Houthis seized Sana’a anyway.
Those who take Iran and the Houthis’ shared Shi’a identity as proof of an inevitable alliance should take heed of the important ideological differences between the two. While the Houthis are predominately Shi’a Muslim, they subscribe to the Zaydi sect of Shi’a Islam, not the Twelver sect that is predominant in Iran. Zaydi Islam is doctrinally closer to Sunni Islam than it is to the Twelver branch of Shi’a Islam.
Even though there is little of evidence of sustained and direct Iranian support for the Houthis, it looks as if there are some members of the Trump administration who want to use the idea that there is an alliance as a springboard for war with Iran.
A preoccupation with Iran comes at the cost of other, more pressing considerations. The U.S.-supported, Saudi-led war has devastated most of Yemen and made what was already the region’s poorest country far poorer. Notwithstanding the humanitarian cost, this has turned much of southern Yemen into a safe haven for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
It should be noted that the Houthis are the mortal enemies of AQAP. Before the start of the Saudi-led war, the Houthis were prosecuting a successful offensive against AQAP. Now, two years later, the Houthis have been weakened and AQAP has never been better armed, better funded, or more influential. AQAP covertly controls large swaths of southern Yemen, including parts of the port city of Aden.
AQAP’s current strategy is one of enmeshment: it is inserting itself into those forces that are opposing the Houthis. This strategy is both overt and covert. As some of the best-trained, best-equipped, and most disciplined fighters, AQAP operatives are often invaluable to forces who are fighting the Houthis. This is evidenced by reports in Arabic media outlets that indicate that at least some of those targeted in the recent botched raid on an AQAP encampment may have been members of a pro-government-in-exile militia, the same types of militias that are supported by Saudi Arabia. This, combined with the possibility that AQAP was tipped off about the U.S.-led raid, should prompt a raft of serious questions about the trustworthiness of some of our “allies.”
Flynn’s statement likely means that the Trump administration will increase support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen while continuing to play “whack-a-mole” with AQAP. The two policies are as incoherent as they are dangerous and ineffective.
It appears that President Trump has fully embraced the Iran hawks and that he may well subscribe to the long-cherished neoconservative dream of regime change and/or war with Iran. If the president acts on the Iran hawks’ advice, he will ensure the continued growth of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. He will also further empower hardliners in Iran. In addition, he may also get the U.S. involved in a war that will sow unparalleled chaos across the Middle East. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump frequently condemned the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and correctly pointed out that that the rise of the Islamic State was one of the many consequences of that decision. A war with Iran will result in second- and third-order consequences that are far more severe and dangerous than those produced by the invasion of Iraq.
Michael Horton is a senior analyst for Arabian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He is a frequent contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review and has written for numerous other publications including: The National Interest, The Economist, and West Point’s CTC Sentinel.