Shi’ite Militia Has Roots in Domestic Politics
Declaring their war against the Houthis of Yemen last week, Saudi Arabia has presented the conflict as a sort of noble intervention, aiming to displace an Iranian proxy from power in favor of the internationally accepted, if not legitimately elected, President Hadi.
Yet the history of the Houthis shows that, far from an invention of Iran, their origins were entirely domestic in nature, a backlash against the political corruption that has defined the nation for decades. WikiLeaks documents from the US State Department underscore this history.
The Houthi movement has its origins in the 1993 parliamentary elections. Longtime dicator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s GPC party won a plurality, but in trying to ensure a weakened opposition Saleh negotiated a deal with Hussein al-Houthi, a powerful member of the opposition al-Haq Party. Houthi was to distance himself from Haq and back the GPC in return for support from the ruling party.
Houthi did as he was asked, and was stabbed in the back in the 1997 election, when Saleh’s office heavily campaigned against him, costing him his seat in parliament. Out of office, Hussein decided to travel abroad to complete his doctorate.
He returned in 2001, and quickly became an influential religious leader, aiming to unite the various independent clerics of Zaidi Shi’ism under a single banner. Successful in this, he began publicly condemning Saleh as a US puppet, while harshly condemning the US invasion of Iraq.
By 2004, the Yemeni military was moving against Houthi and his followers, and Hussein was killed on September 10, 2004, putting a temporary end to hostilities.
Hussein’s father, Badr al-Din Houthi started an uprising in 2005, and his brother Abdul Malik Houthi started an even bigger one in 2007. Their demands centered around equal treatment for their homeland, around Sadaa, which always got the short end of infrastructure investment.
By 2009 the region was in full-scale war, with Saleh vowing to defund public schools and all other basic social spending to pay for weapons to wipe the Houthis out.
Saleh often accused the Houthis of being an Iran proxy, though the US State Department confirmed that this was not the case, and indeed that the Houthis were arming themselves almost entirely through the black market, and purchase of arms from the Yemeni military itself.
With interests largely domestic (and often not even nationwide) and religion never more than tangentially related to their ideology, the Houthis never made sense as allies to Iran. The Zaidi brand of Shi’a Islam isn’t even particularly close to Iran’s own version, and Hussein Houthi’s opposition to the Iraq War, which benefited Iran greatly, reflects how very different the two are.
The Houthis were largely defeated in 2009, though they began to reassert themselves in 2011 during the Arab Spring. This was temporarily calmed by the 2012 ouster of Saleh and his replacement, in a single candidate “vote,” by General Hadi.
Hadi followed through on attempts to weaken the Houthis by implanting Sunni Islamist factions into the Sadaa area, which led to another war in 2014. This time, the Houthis won outright, and marched on the capital city of Sanaa. Here too, they were victorious.
The takeover of the capital set the stage for on-again, off-again battles with Hadi, and the Houthis were pushing heavily for constitutional reforms and free elections, a point on which Hadi resigned in January of 2015.
His resignation lasted a few weeks, then Hadi declared himself unresigned, moving to Aden and vowing to take the country. When the Houthis routed him yet again, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, and courted their military intervention to ensure his rule.
Never has serious evidence of Iranian involvement been seen, and the new claims that loyalists to Saleh are fighting alongside the Houthis are strange indeed, given their history of acrimony.
If Iran gets involved in the Houthi-Saudi war at all, it is because of their regional rivalry with the Saudis, as both sides are keen to wound the other when the opportunity presents itself. To this day, however, the Houthis maintain they have no ties with Iran, and intend to defend the country by themselves.