Yemen: Iran’s Next Satellite State?

Destroyed house in Yemen
Image Credit: Ibrahem Qasim, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The now-ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s statement in 2006 that “Most of the Shias are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in” is of course deeply simplistic and divisive. But it is a sentiment that is likely shared by the inhabitants of the countries where Iran exerts influence via shi’ite proxies.

Lebanon, the country in which Iran piloted this strategy, has been under the partial control of Hezbollah since the end of its bloody 15-year civil war. The group has received Iranian sponsorship since its founding, including increasingly sophisticated military support, while holding a position in government within Lebanon’s confessional system.

Reneging on their commitment to decommissioning within the Ta’if Accords which ended the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah maintained its arms and its independence from state control. The last Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, who tried to enforce the agreement and make Hezbollah disarm was assassinated. And so, with the state lacking any capability to rein the group in, they operate as a kind of shadow army and shadow state inside Lebanon. While operating – at least in some sense – in the interests of Lebanon, they profess loyalty to Iran, and act as a means through which Iran can exert its influence.

Iraq has found itself in a somewhat similar predicament in recent years with the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs), or al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī – an array of Shi’ite militias armed by, and loyal to, Iran, and acting outside of state control. The Iraqi government has also tried to bring these groups under its control but has found itself in danger of being outgunned. When, last June, Prime Minister Khadhimi ordered a raid of Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the most prominent of such militias under this umbrella, he quickly had his residence surrounded by vehicles and fighters from the militia and was forced to free the Kata’ib Hezbollah members he had arrested. Although not all militias under this umbrella are loyal to Iran, many of the most powerful names are, and have displayed a willingness to launch attacks on US troops when called on by their sponsors in Tehran to do so.

Given the relative success of this strategy for Iran’s goal of exporting its revolution across the region, Yemen looks to be next in line to be under the control of the Mullahs. The Houthis, Iran’s Yemeni Shi’ite proxy, are going strong in their war efforts. Despite six years of bombing by the Saudi-led coalition, they maintain control of the capital of Sana’a, and have been consolidating their control to cover most of north-west Yemen. Looking confident, they have launched an offensive against Saudi-backed government forces in the city of Marib in the last month, breaking a multi-year ceasefire.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s determination to prevent the permanent presence of what it sees as an extension of Iran on its southern border, the Houthis have shown themselves too resilient to the coalition’s airpower to be effectively defeated. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw support for the coalition, which the US had been providing since early in the war, was likely in recognition that the war is increasingly appearing unwinnable for US allies.

This is in large part because a steady supply of arms, funds and training from Iran has enabled the Houthis to build a robust military capability. Shipments of guns and advanced weaponry, including drones, drone boats, IEDs, ballistic missiles and naval mines, have been intercepted on their way to Yemen. Intelligence has also confirmed the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah operatives in Yemen, thought to be there in a training capacity.

Divisions within the coalition and their allies on the ground have also stifled attempts to clamp down on the Houthis. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist movement in the south of Yemen with UAE support, split with the Saudi-backed government in August 2019, seizing control of the provisional capital of Aden from the latter. Attempts by Saudi Arabia to mediate temporarily distracted from the war effort. A fragile agreement exists placing STC forces under government control, although temporarily broken, lasted until last April, when the STC declared an autonomous zone in Aden and other southern provinces, before coming back to the agreement.

And so, with the help of Iran, and the divisions between their adversaries, the Houthis, although not able to dominate the entire country, are a dominant player in Yemen. When a comprehensive peace settlement eventually brings an end to the war-torn country’s suffering, they will be in a strong enough negotiating position to secure political legitimacy within Yemen’s post-war political infrastructure. The future of post-war Yemen is therefore likely to look something like the status-quo of Lebanon; a country under permanent Iranian proxy-control.

This will of course be a tough pill for the Saudis to swallow. Given the Kingdom’s commitment to containing Iranian expansionism, an Iranian satellite-state on its doorstep will not be a welcome state of affairs. The further Iran expands its influence, the further the Gulf states are pushed to increase their ties with Israel to create a united front against the Mullahs. A threatened Saudi Arabia may therefore do what many Middle East-watchers have been waiting for — formalizing relations with Israel. This may be thought to risk harming the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy, given most Arabs’ distaste for Israel and solidarity with the Palestinian cause. However, the recent signing of the Abraham Accords, formalizing ties between Israel and both UAE and Bahrain, suggest geopolitics may now be trumping such concerns.

Yemen is one of the most pressing humanitarian crises in the world. After six years of conflict, over 18,000 civilians killed and almost half the population facing food shortages, the war must end. Any settlement would therefore ultimately be a good thing. However, a settlement and the status-quo it produces will have their own implications beyond Yemen, and even after the fighting has stopped, Yemen will continue to be a square on the regional chessboard.

Patrick Hess is a recent Master’s graduate in Middle Eastern Studies. He is currently based in London. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.