Similar to Shia Muslims in matters of religious law and rulings, the Houthi belief in the concept of an Imamate as being essential to their religion makes them distinct from Sunnis. Its followers are Zaydis, which is notably different from the Twelver school of Shia Islam followed by the Iranian establishment. The Houthis do not embrace the vilayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) concept, which essentially means professing loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader.
A United Nations backgrounder on the Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, describes it as a Zaydi revivalist group formed in the 1980’s as a response to perceived state-sponsored attempts at cultural and religious eradication.
The Zaydi imamate of north Yemen was overthrown in 1962, ending more than a millennium of rule by local sayyids, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, who formed the ruling class. In the aftermath of the 1962 civil war and the successive Republican regimes that followed, Zaydi sayyids were discriminated against to the point that many within the community felt they were on the verge of extinction.
These tensions boiled over in 2004 in the first of what would come to be known as the “Houthi Wars,” in which the central government in Sana’a, headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh (a Zaidi himself), fought the Houthis and their local allies. Five more rounds of conflict would follow over the next six years. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and President Saleh’s negotiated resignation in early 2012, the Houthis moved to consolidate control in and around the Governorate of Sa’dah, where they were based.
In late 2014, while President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi was manipulating multiple challenges to his rule, the Houthis pushed into Sana’a and by January 2015 they had placed Hadi under house arrest. Two months later, following Hadi’s escape to Saudi Arabia via Aden, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 26, 2015 with the stated goal of returning President Hadi to power.
On January 30, 2017, a “suicide gunboat” attack west of Yemen´s Hodeida port on a Saudi vessel killed two sailors and injured three others. The attack on the Saudi ship was allegedly intended for an American warship, according to U.S. defense officials. The Houthi al-Masira channel claimed that the explosion was caused by a guided missile.
The issue of how important Iranian military support is to the Houthi rebels, especially in the field of strategic anti-ship and ground-to-ground missiles, is in dispute among the regional and global actors involved in the Yemeni conflict. For instance, on October 1, 2016, a missile fired from the vicinity of the Red Sea port city of Mokha by Houthi rebels struck a UAE vessel, causing severe damage. The Houthis said that the anti-ship missile was a Chinese-made C-802, the same kind of missile fired by Hezbollah at the Israeli navy’s Ahi-Hanit vessel in Lebanese waters in July 2006.
A recent report by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen was unable has so far been unable to verify this claim concerning the missile type. However, the panel concluded that the Houthi-Saleh military alliance has potentially significantly increased the maritime threat to vessels passing through the Red Sea and Strait of Bab al-Mandab, and to those delivering humanitarian aid to Yemen.
The ideological shift in the Houthi movement
This article focuses on the ideological shift in the Houthi movement that not only transformed it to a strategic ally of the Tehran Islamist revolutionary regime, but to a sectarian member of the Iranian Shi'ite axis.
In this sense, the video of the January attack on the Saudi ship widely disseminated by the Houthi media permits a glimpse in this ideological transformation. The rebels who monitor the attack shout a known slogan in the Iranian Shi'ite coalition: “Death to the United States, death to Israel, curse of Allah upon the Jews.”
Some observers, including political analyst Shahir ShahidSaless, contested statements by Iranian officials in 2015 who claimed that Yemen is within Iran’s sphere of influence, a new member of the Iranian led “axis of resistance” that encompasses Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi'ite militants confronting Western interests and Israel. Among these officials, he names: Hojatoleslam Ali Shirazi, representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force; Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri, who heads the Office of Inspection of the House of the Supreme Leader; and Ali Akbar Velayati, the Foreign Affairs Adviser to Khamenei.
ShahidSaless claims Houthis have continually denied allegations that they are proxies for Iranian foreign policy objectives but have admitted Iranian backing due to a shared vision in confronting “the American project." Although pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, have been carried by Houthi supporters during demonstrations, no member of the Houthi political bureau has made any statement praising Iran in the last year or so. It is possible that they want to avoid political and sectarian polarization threatening the Yemeni nation, he argues.
Hussein Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthis' political office, stated that the Houthis cannot apply the Iranian system in Yemen “because the followers of the Shafi [Sunni] doctrine are bigger in number than the Zaidis [Shi'ite].”
In April 2015, Yossi Mansharof and E. Kharrazi published a comprehensive paper on the Iranian views and official declarations concerning Iran’s political, military and economic support of the Houthis, stressing the strategic and geopolitical benefits for Tehran, especially in their conflict with Saudi Arabia and the West. Senior Iranian spokesmen pointed at the revolution in Yemen as indicative of the further success of the enterprise of exporting Iran's Islamic Revolution. The authors cite Mehdi Taeb, Director of the Ammar Headquarters think tank that advises Supreme Leader Khamenei, who even argued that “without Iran… Ansar Allah would have never emerged.”
Recently, Katherine Zimmerman, an expert on Yemen at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has also claimed that the al-Houthi movement is not an Iranian proxy and, although Iranian officials affirm that the al-Houthis are part of the “Axis of Resistance”, “the al-Houthis probably mean more to Iran than Iran does to the al-Houthis.”
Zimmerman argues that the al-Houthi leadership retains its decision-making power and has not subordinated the group to Iranian objectives. Local al-Houthi groups are not all ideologically behind the al-Houthi leadership, the movement is highly factionalized, not organized hierarchically under a single leader, and powerful families outside of the al-Houthi family and independent of Iranian influence comprise the leading ranks of the movement, “though they have been partially marginalized over time.”
If one applies this argument to the situation in Lebanon, one would find that Hezbollah is not the only important Shi'ite factor in the community. The Amal secular movement is active in the political life and retains the Chairmanship of the Parliament; even a former Hezbollah leader like Subhi al-Tufayli, Secretary-General of Hezbollah from 1989 until 1991, is a very vocal critic of Iran and the current Hezbollah leadership. Still, Hezbollah controls much of Lebanon’s political and military arena and is completely aligned with Tehran or, more exactly, is part and parcel of the Iranian regime.
Therefore, one cannot maintain that the present Houthi leadership does not fit the Hezbollah model and “is very unlikely to be able to replicate it in Yemen.”
Another assertion of Zimmerman is that the al-Houthi relationship with Hezbollah became public over the course of 2015. However, there were reports of Houthis training with Hezbollah in Syria as of 2012 and with Iraqi Shi'ite militias in 2014.
Early ideological roots
There are significant Zaydi distinctions from the Iraqi and Iranian version of Shi‘ism (“Twelver Shi‘ism”), both in doctrine and in practice. Zaidis traditionally have not been interested in propagating their beliefs or proselytizing. Zaidi doctrine, and most Zaidis today, accept the concept of vilayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisconsult) advocated by Khomeini during the Islamic revolution, which holds that only Islamic jurists - as the embodiment of the hidden Twelfth Imam - are qualified to guard over the state and interpret its laws. Zaydis today are not subordinate to a clerical hierarchy or its jurists as are Iranian Twelvers.
Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the patriarch of the al-Houthi family (who died in 2010) and one of the most prestigious Zaidi religious scholars in Yemen, visited Iran during the 1990s as Tehran had “a fraternal view of the Houthi family.” Yemeni authorities accused Badr al-Din and his sons of sharing Iran’s agenda to drive a Shi‘ite wedge into the Arab heartland in order to become the Yemeni component of Iran’s regional “Shi‘ite crescent” policy, while receiving support from Shi‘ite groups in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
The lectures and preaching by Hussein al-Houthi, Badr al-Din’s eldest son and the ideologue of the Zaydi-revivalism, were delivered, recorded and largely circulated beginning in 2000. After 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, his ideas were disseminated on special occasions, including Quds Day (International Jerusalem Day), initiated by Iran in 1979, and included many anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli elements.
He made regular reference to the idea that the Muslim world is in a state of weakness “under the feet of the Jews and Christians.” While acknowledging that “It is clear in front of us collectively that Israel is powerful over the Arabs . . . [and] that Jews and Christians are the masters of Muslims,” Hussein al-Houthi regularly alludes to the idea that the Shi'ites, rather than the Sunnis or Al-Qaida, are the true targets of Israeli-American hegemony. Hussein refers to the “Zionist entity” as a “cancer” and refers to America as “the Great Satan.”
The anti-American and anti-Israeli motif in Hussein al-Houthi’s lectures is exemplified by the slogan chanted at the end of nearly all of his sermons: “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse upon the Jews, Victory for Islam,” the slogan first chanted collectively at the Imam Hadi school in the Marran Mountains on January 17, 2002. It is an almost a word-for-word translation of Ayatollah Khomeini's slogan written over four lines with two words per line, in green and red on a white background. The goal of the slogan is to “ingrain in the minds of Muslims that America is the criminal terrorist, that America is evil, that Jews and Christians are evil . . .” and it encourages Muslims to take a stand against Western hegemony in the Arab world and support those who fight America and Israel.
Hussein regularly cited statements made by Imam Khomeini in support of his arguments. For example, he credited Khomeini with referring to the United States as the “Great Satan,” while also quoting his opinion that “America and Israel are planning to take over the holy sites.” Thus, he looks to Iran as an example of strength in the Muslim world as compared to its Sunni Arab counterparts. With respect to Hezbollah, he describes them as the “head of mujahidin in this world, the ones who present martyrs, the ones who truly preserve the water of the face of the umma.”
While Hussein does not advocate abiding by the edicts of the Iranian marja‘iya or condone vilayat-e faqih, his references to Iran and Hezbollah are based on the idea that they are the pillars of opposition to Western hegemony in the Arab world. He never explicitly called on his followers to take up arms against the Yemeni state. Rather, he appears to be more concerned with confronting the “Jewish” enemies of Islam. While he certainly expresses his support for groups such as Hezbollah, there was no structured “Houthi” organization at the time of these lectures.
Hussein traveled to Iran and toured Qum to learn about the success of the Iranian revolution and Hezbollah’s evolution while Lebanese and Iraqi Shi‘ites visited Yemen to study in “Houthi centers” in the late 1990s, as well as to establish Twelver-style learning centers (Husseynias) in the region.
In June 2004, the government of Yemen sought to eliminate the Houthi threat by arresting Hussein al-Houthi, depicted him as a proxy for Iran, and finally killed him. An armed conflict ensued and, even though the government declared victory in September 2004, Saa‘da and the adjoining governorates have witnessed years of fighting since then.
The new young leader of the movement after the killing of his brother Hussein, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, emerged as the ideological head of the group, building on the legacy of his father and brother. Thus, while the Houthi organism had yet to develop a concrete ideology by 2010, certain members of the group have laid out concepts that could certainly be molded into one, given the right circumstances.
For instance, the group’s use of militant anashid (anthems; sing. nashid) in its videos further portrays it as more in line with Hezbollah models of resistance. Images depicting Houthi fighters with the sun as a background further draw a parallel to other Shi‘ite jihadist groups, giving the Houthis spiritual legitimacy within the context of a Shi‘ite jihadist organization. Propaganda pamphlets distributed in the conflict zone advertising the importance of jihad further render the group as a more militant organization.
In a 2008 interview, ‘Abd al-Malik argued: “The Houthi current is an expression of popular solidarity mobilizing peacefully to oppose the American-Israeli attack on the Islamic world and spreading the Qur'anic culture in the face of intellectual assault.”
According to RAND experts, by 2010 there were some indications that the Houthi organism may have had the capacity to shift to a more robust and self-perpetuating organizational model, exhibiting “a rudimentary ideology that has begun to solidify a sense of identity among its followers through group rituals”. Thus, they assessed that while ‘Abd al-Malik is unlikely to completely transform the organism into a political party, he may eventually concede that having a political wing within the group could legitimate it as a force within Yemen similar to moves by Hezbollah in the 1990s and Hamas after 2000.
Iran began to address the ongoing violence in Sa‘da in its official statements in late 2009. In a hint to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Foreign Minister warned all states to respect Yemen’s sovereignty and indicated an Iranian willingness to participate in conflict resolution. Iran’s Defense Minister criticized both Yemen and Saudi Arabia by affirming that there is no military solution to the conflict. The state-sanctioned Iranian press has focused much more attention on the conflict since the November 2009 Saudi intervention in Yemen. As of the beginning of 2010, the Houthi conflict and Yemeni stability had not yet become a priority for Tehran beyond being an additional element in the enduring rivalry with Saudi Arabia for regional prominence.
RAND experts accurately assessed that relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran could deteriorate rapidly if concrete evidence were to emerge of Tehran’s relationship to the Houthis. If the conflict continues and the Houthis evolve into an organization that also provides social services, the group could approach the Hezbollah/Hamas model. This could intensify speculation about Iranian contacts with the group, increase the readiness of Iranian speakers to consider Zaydis as “al-Houthi Shi‘ites” and harm prospects of conflict abatement.
The Houthi movement after the fall of President Saleh’s regime
Abdulelah Taqi claims that the Houthi's propaganda strategy developed since the battle between the then regime in Yemen and the Houthis in mid-2004 and contains “hallmarks of the Lebanese Hizballah movement's own propaganda operation in its discourse and format.” Abdul-Malik, the current leader, delivers his speeches inspired by the “performances of Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah whom he mimics in tone, mannerisms, and discourse.” When asked in 2009 about the bond between Iran and the rebels, leading Houthi cleric Issam al-Imad compared the group's leader, Hussein al-Houthi, to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
A boy holding a poster of Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader and the leader of the Shi’ite Houthi movement during a rally in Sana’a, Yemen, on October 26, 2016. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
From left to right: Ansar Allah (Yemeni Houthi) emblem, Hezbollah emblem, IRGC emblem (source: Afsaran.ir, March 28, 2015)
In November 2015, Abdul-Malik accused Israel and the U.S. of being behind the Saudi war on Yemen, and in December he claimed that Israel seeks to "enslave Muslims." In a speech delivered in May 2016 in commemoration of the twelfth anniversary of the killing of Hussein al-Houthi, he said: "It is well-known that everything that is happening in our region serves the interest of one party – the Zionists and the US…The Zionist lobby is acting spitefully, planning a lot of schemes against our nation, arousing civil wars and creating crises."
In April 2017, Abdul-Malik declared that the United States and the Israeli regime are two sides of the same coin and together they seek to destroy Yemen through a brutal military campaign launched by Saudi Arabia. “[When] anyone says Israel is a threat to our nation, the United States and its allies say they are supporters of Iran, and with the help of this false justification, they (Washington and allies) target anyone that does not accept adopting a hostile attitude towards Iran,” he said.
In a clear sign of their ideological inclinations, Houthi leaders appointed Beraas Shams al-Din Muhammad Sharaf al-Din as a new Mufti to serve as the leading religious authority in Sana’a. Sharaf al-Din was educated in Iran and is believed to be one of the most important links between Iran and the Houthi movement.
According to journalist Erika Solomon, based on interviews with a Houthi official and sources close to Hezbollah, the relationship goes back several years. Hezbollah fighters say they have played a more active role on the ground in Yemen. A Houthi official in Beirut said relations with the Lebanese movement span over a decade, while a Hezbollah commander said Houthis and Hezbollah trained together for the past 10 years in Iran, then in Lebanon and in Yemen. Hezbollah also helped establish the Houthi Al-Masira television channel based in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs.
Two Hezbollah members said hundreds of Lebanese and Iranian trainers and military advisers are in Yemen already, the Iranians probably dealing with missile batteries and other weaponry while Hezbollah fighters likely serving as “the guerrilla experts” exchanging “experience and ideology.” Hezbollah fighters view the fight in Yemen as a sign that their organization is now a regional brand present “wherever the oppressed need [them]. . . Hizbollah is the school where every freedom-seeking man wants to learn.”
In mid-2014, Yemen arrested Hezbollah and IRGC members who helped the Houthi rebels in southern Yemen. In September 2016, Yemeni President Hadi was forced to free a number of IRGC members and Hezbollah operatives under pressure by the Houthis, who had taken over Sana’a. At the beginning of the year, IRGC men were arrested at the airport after arriving in Yemen to help train the Houthis.
Recently, Mehdi Taeb was quoted as saying that “Iran’s catering of missiles to the Houthis was carried out in stages by the Revolutionary Guards and the support and assistance of the Iranian navy,” but accused Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of obstructing the continued shipments of arms to the Houthis out of fear that the Americans would suspend negotiations on the nuclear deal.
The Houthis have regularly been accused, even by many fellow Zaidis, of secretly being converts or followers of the Twelver sect, which is the official religion of Iran. Houthi-affiliated TV and radio stations use religious connotations associated with jihad against Israel and the US, calling Saudi Arabia a U.S. puppet state. IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami said, “Ansarollah is a similar copy of [Lebanese] Hezbollah in a strategic area.”
Direct threat to Israel
A recent report by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) estimates that Iran may deploy more advanced military capabilities to Yemen in support of the Houthi Movement, including sophisticated arms and Afghan and Shia Arab advisors, based on the model that it developed in Syria. The report claims that al-Houthi movement is not part of the “Axis of Resistance,” as Iranian officials describe it. Iran may increase its engagement in Yemen if U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition threatens the al Houthi-Saleh faction’s survival. The authors recommend that the U.S. work to avoid isolating the Houthis and focus on reducing their reliance on Tehran.
However, the AEI itself views "the deployment of interoperable proxy forces as part of Iran’s evolution of a form of hybrid warfare that will allow it to project significant force far from its borders and fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region."
This is exactly the kind of strategy that must motivate the U.S. to counter Iranian hegemonic ambitions and aggression.
In this author's assessment, the process of radicalization of the Houthi movement began much earlier, as described in this paper, and is more profound than evaluated by AEI's experts.
A physical Iranian presence based on a strategic cooperation with the Houthis, both ground and naval, in Yemeni ports of the Red Sea, the control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the threat to free navigation from Israel's Eilat Southern harbor, represent a direct threat to Israel's security and interests.
Moreover, this project will permit Iran to completely encircle Israel on the Lebanese, Syrian, Gazan and now Yemeni frontiers, and increase the ground and naval challenges for the Jewish state.
It should be remembered that in the 1970s and 1980s, Yemen was an important platform and safe haven for Palestinian terrorist organizations, mainly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), but also some European radical leftist organizations (mainly German), which staged deadly attacks against Israeli, Jewish and western targets in Europe.
Significantly, the first terrorist naval attack by Palestinians against Israel was staged by the PFLP against the Liberian-registered oil tanker Coral Sea in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb on June 4, 1971. Terrorists on a speedboat fired 10 RPG shells at the tanker, causing some damage. The attack was intended to deter tankers from using the Israeli port of Eilat.
The Houthis, Hezbollah and other Shi'ite "foreign fighters" could use a territorial presence in Yemen to threaten Israeli, American and Western interests in the region and beyond, in a similar way as Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).
 “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen,” Letter dated 27 January 2017 from the Panel of Experts on Yemen addressed to the President of the Security Council, January 31, 2017.
 “US deploys guided missile destroyer off Yemeni coast after attack on Saudi warship – reports,” RT News, February 4, 2017.
 “Yemen's Houthis attack Saudi ship, launch ballistic missile,” Reuters, January 31, 2017.
 Ephraim Sneh, “What recent Houthi moves in Red Sea mean for Israel,” Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, November 7, 2016.
 Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen.
 See note 2.
 Shahir ShahidSaless, “Does Iran really control Yemen?” Al-Monitor Iran Pulse, February 12, 2015.
 Khalid Al-Karimi, “Al-Bukhaiti to the Yemen Times: “The Houthis’ takeover cannot be called an invasion,’” Yemen Times, October 21, 2014.
 Yossi Mansharof and E. Kharrazi, “Iran's Support for The Houthi Rebellion in Yemen: 'Without Iran There Would Be No War in Syria And Ansar Allah Would Have Never Emerged',” MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series, No.1155, April 20, 2015.
 Katherine Zimmerman, “Pushing Back on Iran: Policy Options in Yemen,” Critical Threats, American Enterprise Institute, February 7, 2017.
 This chapter is largely based on the 2010 seminal work by Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt, Madeleine Wells, “Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen. The Huthi Phenomenon,” RAND Corporation monograph series, 2010.
 Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen. The Huthi Phenomenon.
 Abdulelah Taqi, “Houthi propaganda: following in Hizballah's footsteps,” The New Arab, April 12, 2015, at https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2015/4/12/houthi-propaganda-following-in-hizballahs-footsteps
 David Schenker, “Who's behind the Houthis?” Weekly Standard, February 22, 2010.
 Yossi Mansharof and E. Kharrazi, “Iran's Support for the Houthi Rebellion in Yemen.”
 Bymaayan Groisman, “Houthi Leader: Israel Participating in the Aggression Against Yemen,” The Jerusalem Post, May 3, 2016.
 Paul Antonopoulos, “Houthi Ansarullah leader: US, Israel are two sides of the same coin,” Al-Masdar Al-'Arabi, April 24, 2017.
 “Yemen’s Houthis appoint new Mufti educated in Iran,” Al Arabiya English, April 14, 2017.
 Erika Solomon, Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthis open up on links, The Financial Times, May 8, 2015.
 Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, “How Iran Views the Fall of Sana’a, Yemen: ‘The Fourth Arab Capital in Our Hands’,” Jerusalem Issue Briefs, Jerusalem Center for Public Affair, Vol. 14, No. 36, November 3, 2014.
 Saleh Hamid, “Iranian official admits Tehran supported Houthi missile strikes on Saudi Arabia,” Al Arabiya, April 20, 2017.
 “Hothi / Houthi / Huthi. Ansar Allah al-Shabab al-Mum'en / Shabab al-Moumineen (Believing Youth),” GlobalSecurity.org website, at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/para/shabab-al-moumineen.htm
 Shahir ShahidSaless, Does Iran really control Yemen?
 Maher Farrukh, Tyler Nocita and Emily Estelle, "Warning Update: Iran's Hybrid Warfare in Yemen," Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute, March 26, 2017.