A major question in trying to understand the Houthis’ goals and ambitions in fighting Yemen’s civil war is the extent to which they have coordinated with Tehran to support Iran’s larger regional objectives. The assessment has generally been that the Houthis have retained a large degree of independence from Iran.
Although their links to Iran, including military assistance and training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, have been well established over the years and have deepened since the outbreak of the civil conflict in 2014, their willingness to follow Iran’s lead on matters beyond Yemen’s borders has not been established.
A month after the Hamas terror attack on Israel, the Houthis have raised their profile as members of Iran’s “axis of resistance.”
“We are in complete coordination with our brothers in the axis of resistance,” said Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the rebel movement. Since then, in furtherance of al-Houthi’s declaration, the Houthis have joined Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militias in launching attacks presumably against Israeli targets.
To date, none of these efforts has been successful. The U.S. Navy destroyer Carney reportedly shot down multiple missiles and drones launched by the Houthis on Oct. 19, apparently targeting Israel. Additional Houthi drones apparently struck the Egyptian Red Sea towns of Taba and Nuweiba a week later, and the group subsequently fired additional missiles and drones toward Israel’s Red Sea coast.
Although Houthi capabilities to strike Israel itself are limited, the Israeli Navy was forced to deploy Saar-class corvettes off of Eilat to guard against additional Houthi attempts.
Despite its limited capacity to strike Israel, unlike Hezbollah or other pro-Iranian groups along Israel’s northern border, the Houthis do have the capacity to pose a significant security threat in the event that the conflict expands beyond Gaza. While they have been engaged for many months in talks with Saudi Arabia to end Saudi engagement in the civil conflict, none of the issues has been resolved, and the Houthis have threatened periodically to relaunch their missile and drone campaign against Saudi targets.
Renewed Saudi-Houthi conflict will be destabilizing regionally and could be a threat to global energy markets at a time when they are already under stress.
The Houthis have also demonstrated an ability to attack international commercial shipping off Yemen’s coast, in the Bab el-Mandeb strait and beyond. Periodically over the course of the Yemen civil war, the Houthis have attacked both coalition naval vessels and commercial shipping using suicide drone boats likely manufactured with Iranian assistance as well as Iranian-manufactured, Chinese-designed C-802 anti-ship missiles.
In addition to attacks on ships, the Houthis have also reportedly placed mines in the Red Sea. Following an attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer Mason in October 2016, the U.S. responded by launching a cruise missile against a Houthi coastal radar position.
Should the Houthis step up their campaign against either Saudi targets or targets in the Red Sea as the Gaza conflict continues, the potential for direct intervention by the U.S. against Houthi targets will expand.
Gerald Feierstein is a distinguished senior fellow focused on U.S. diplomacy at the Middle East Institute, where he is also director of the think tank’s Arabian Peninsula Affairs program. He previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.