The deadlock of Iran and the Houthis

Ezzadin Al-Asbahi
Friday 24 Sep 2021

'The other reason for these frictions is the increasing so-called 'revolutionary' trend in Iran, which seeks to quickly find an ideological and partisan base in Yemen that believes in the doctrine of Welayat-el-Faqih'

The Houthi militia in Yemen shows a clear and open allegiance to Iran and is keen on sending strong signals about its relationship to Tehran, starting with the glorification of the Iranian Mullahs’ position, and ending with the consecration of the Persian language at Sanaa University.

However, although Iran boasts of its control of four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa, secretly sending an ambassador to Sanaa in violation of all international norms and standards, this begs the question: to what extent does the Houthi movement serve the future Iranian orientation in Yemen while reinforcing Tehran's long-term control, actually over the whole of Yemen?.

Or, it may actually be the opposite, will Iran find itself out of the equation despite of all this current success? Such a question would then be conducive to another one: will Iran find for itself another way in Yemen, one that would be other than it used to embrace through the Houthis, whom they may be trying to shun, through potential alliances with other entities?

We must realize that there are two levels at stake in the enhancement of the Iranian influence, which is directed by the deep state of Tehran.

The first level is grounded on exporting the idea of the revolution, based on Iran leading a global axis against imperialism; this is a populist discourse that justifies the presence of Iranian cells from Latin America to Africa, relying on non-religious forces, and only united by the need to bring support and maintain a historical position towards a previous ideological conflict.

The second level is based on allegiance to the theory of the doctrine, and the belief in a standing religious referential, which no one discusses: Welayat-el-Faqih - the doctrine which stipulates that the imam leader in Tehran is the infallible guardian, the commander of all times.

It is from the latter that comes all of Iran’s attempts to spread Shiism, not only by highlighting some religious rituals, but by creating a partisan current capable of using violence and controlling any country it takes up residence in.

When we use this model as a gauge in Yemen, we find out that the Iranian project has started experiencing some turmoil with the Houthi movement and its rogue militias. The Houthis raised their banners in the far northern regions of Yemen for the revival of the theory of the Zaydi sect and as representatives of this sect in the country.

Their movement found fertile soil in which the seed of the Zaydi Imamate could bloom in the northern regions for several reasons, most notably the historical presence of this current there, secondly the strong conviction of a large segment of the population of those regions that the Sunni currents are a threat, and thirdly the previous regime’s approach for more than thirty-five years.

The previous Yemeni regime practiced sectarian and regional devotion in its most prominent and most important institutions – the army, the intelligence services, and the judiciary – believing that it was protecting its narrow interests by maintaining power to govern in the hands of a ruling elite. It did not, however, realize that strengthening sectarianism reinforced by the regionalism would produce a fertile soil for the Imamate.

When Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi announced his call, this discrimination meant he found a ready group of young people, not only in mosques, but within the ranks of the army, within the moral guidance entities, within the intelligence services, among party leaders and state apparatuses as well.

The strategic mistake made by the political parties of not adopting a serious stance against the sectarian and religious ideologies paved the way for the movement to spread in large areas. This was compounded by the direct guidance that was given by the previous state leadership to the governing bodies and the army to join the Houthi march in defiance of the vociferous opposition of the street at the time. That was a failed tactic that plunged the country into a predicament in which there was no way back.

All of this happened while Iran did not have control over the events, nor did it have the ability to fully direct the stage in Sanaa. Iran, rather, was given the opportunity on a silver platter, and it kept waiting and waiting for more opportunities to come, providing support, aid and training to the Houthi group, and working on the institutional construction of its security and media apparatuses.

Concomitantly, Iran’s presence in Yemen was not hinged on sectarianism, but with recruiting followers within circles interested in the "fight against tyranny," the "struggle against global imperialism," and the constant anger of Yemen towards its neighbors, together with feelings of injustice.

In this way, the Iranians found fertile ground in Saada and Sanaa, as well as within the movements in Hadramawt, Aden, the rest of the south, and Taiz as well.

There came a moment when many of those involved in the Arab Spring, or those who opposed to the former president's regime, were closer to Tehran than they were to Doha. At the same time, Iran was seeking to work with forces from nationalist, leftist, or Muslim Brotherhood movements, with a large focus being put on the youth and women.

This was the manner in which Iran maintained a presence in Yemen, steering away from sectarianism reinforced by regionalism, until the Houthis took control at the end of 2014 and early in 2015, opening the way for the construction of a direct air bridge between Tehran and Sanaa.

At that specific period of time, the indicators of a regional danger appeared, and it became crystal clear that Iran did not merely support a movement, but it, above all, sought to create a new geography of power in the region.

The relationship between the Houthi movement and the Iranian regime was – and obviously still is – characterized by many frictions. These frictions are partly due to internal conflicts in Tehran, but that is another story.

The other reason for these frictions is the increasing so-called "revolutionary" trend in Iran, which seeks to quickly find an ideological and partisan base in Yemen that believes in the doctrine of Welayat-el-Faqih, and in the religious and political referentials, one which is supported by a deep security institution.

The quest of such forces in Tehran is to set the stage for an outspoken leader who would address the people just like Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shia Hizbullah, in the Lebanese suburbs, an outspoken leader who would affirm that the affiliation to the theory of the Imam and religious scholar in Iran stems from an unshakable faith.

Such a discourse is overtly maintained by Nasrallah in the Jaafari surrounding – referring to the Shia school of jurisprudence – in which the deeply anchored prevailing ideologies are exclusively in favor of Iran. Because of this, Nasrallah is not afraid to do anything, even if it triggers the anger of the majority of the Lebanese.

However, the situation in Sanaa is different, as that Jaafari incubator has not yet been found there, nor has its popular construction been completed, even if it has been overrun by security forces.

The Houthi leadership, although now inclined to “the Twelvers” branch of Shiism, still derives strength from the northern governorates who represents the Zaidis, and not the Jafaris who follow the Imams of Tehran.

But it seems that things are moving in another confrontational direction, and the winds of the "revolutionary fervor in Tehran" are reaching Sanaa, with the adamant quest to change both the geography of power and the existing ideological affiliations.

The concern here is not this crude rhetoric of an Iranian faction that says that it will convert Zaydis to “Twelvers”, but from a broader plan to make this new trend in Tehran emanate from the various parts of Yemen in other governorates, and not only from the northern ones, with a heavy reliance on the tone of "resistance," the country’s "unity," and the announcement of the "end of outside interventions."

This is further made possible by the absence of state institutions, and of a growing sense of disillusionment, together with the absence of a comprehensive national project in Yemen. And that is precisely the issue.

A whole discussion that needs to be reinitiated at this stage…..

*The writer is ambassador of the Republic of Yemen in Morocco.

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