The ideological affinities of the Houthis with Iran
Dubai - For the past few years Iran has been charged by Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies of supporting the Houthi insurgency against the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Numerous reports have articulated Iranian support for the Houthi insurgency based around weapons transfers, financing and training support to Houthi fighters since about 2004, though the cooperation appears to have intensified strongly over the past 24 months.
Several Iranian shipments carrying AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weapons to Yemen have been intercepted by Yemeni authorities and US forces since 2010.
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ended his decades-long opposition and fight against the Houthis in 2013, had repeatedly spoken about Iranian support of the Houthis. According to Saleh, the Houthis’ anti-US rhetoric and opposition to Israel earn them much sympathy in Iran.
Iran has acknowledged its moral support for Houthi fighters though it dismisses charges of material support to the insurgency. However, the Houthis’ credentials as a Shia militia and their political opposition to Saudi Arabia clearly make them a useful partner for Tehran in its cold war with Riyadh.
Reports suggest that Iran has directed Hezbollah to support Houthi insurgents. Hezbollah, however, may have limited its activity to advisers and trainers to Houthi commanders rather than taking to the front lines. Regional observers have also tried to link the Yemen conflict with the Syrian war, with one theory suggesting that Iran seeks to use Yemen as leverage against Saudi Arabia for achieving its desired outcome in Syria by raising the regional costs of Saudi confrontation with it.
Others point to how the Houthis provide Tehran with a new advantage in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, given that its traditional allies Hezbollah, Hamas and the Assad regime in Syria are not focused on direct military competition with Saudi Arabia along Saudi territories.
Despite its Shia theology and revolutionary ideals, the Houthi ideology has subtle but important divergences from Iran. The Houthis, whose official name is Ansar Allah, are a religious-political movement composed of Zaidi Muslims. The Zaidi branch of Islam initially emerged following the failed uprising of Zayd ibn Ali, the grandson of Hussein ibn Ali, against the Umayyad Caliph, Hisham ibn Abdul Malik, who ruled between 724-743.
Zaidis are among the oldest branches of Shia Islam. However, as far as Islamic jurisprudence goes, they are regarded to be close to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Zaidis have been described as the closest of Shia sects to Sunni Islam.
Unlike Twelver Shias, who represent the majority of Shia Muslims, Zaidis do not believe in the infallibility of imams and do not believe that the imamate must pass hereditarily, though it can be only claimed by a descendant of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah.
Zaidis have their own historical line of imams, established about 897, who then implemented a mix of religious and secular rule in parts of present-day Yemen until a republican revolution ended the Zaidi imamate in 1962.
However, the Zaidi imamates never managed to truly unify Yemen or form solid foundations for their rule. Following the removal of the last Zaidi caliph, large numbers of Zaidis in the north were reported to have converted to Sunni Islam. Nonetheless, Zaidis are estimated to make up half of the Yemeni population today, mainly concentrated in the north.
The Houthis are composed mainly of Shia tribesmen renowned for their combat skills and survivability in the rugged, arid regions from which they hail. The Houthis originally formed as a more moderate group in the Sa’dah governorate called the Believing Youth in 1992. Since then, the Houthis, who get their popular name from their founder, Badreddin Houthi, have undergone much transformation as they grew into the very effective and dangerous insurgency.
Culturally and ideologically, the Zaidis retain a distinct identity from Twelver Shias, one that at least until now Iran has been unable to effectively penetrate from a political-religious perspective.
How the conflict in Yemen develops and how the clerical establishment of Iran and its revolutionary flag carriers can court the Houthis and wider Zaidi diaspora may alter their future relationship but, for now, the alliance seems to remain built on current mutual interests rather than on any truly unifying and binding ideological commitment to one another.