Cover: Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizballah?

Could the Houthis Be the Next Hizballah?

Iranian Proxy Development in Yemen and the Future of the Houthi Movement

Published Jul 13, 2020

by Trevor Johnston, Matthew Lane, Abigail Casey, Heather J. Williams, Ashley L. Rhoades, James Sladden, Nathan Vest, Jordan R. Reimer, Ryan Haberman

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Research Questions

  1. What is the likelihood that Iran will further invest in the Houthis and develop them as an enduring proxy group in Yemen?
  2. Under what conditions might Iran increase its support for, and its efforts to influence, the Houthi movement?
  3. How might the Houthis' demand for Iranian support change in the future?
  4. How sustainable is Iranian support given dramatic changes on the ground (e.g., as Saudi posture and presence in Yemen grows)?
  5. What organizational, ideological, or religious divisions exist within the Houthi movement, and how might these factional differences affect the trajectory of the Houthi-Iran relationship?

In recent years Iran has dramatically increased its investment in the Houthi movement, raising speculation that the Houthis will evolve into another regional proxy that serves to protect and promote Iranian interests. Iran has frequently turned to sponsor-proxy relationships to expand its reach in the Middle East and antagonize its adversaries while minimizing the risk of inviting direct conflict. The Houthis represent an attractive opportunity on both of these counts — giving Iran reach into Yemen and the adjacent Red Sea and providing Iran a means to harass its rival, Saudi Arabia. The authors document the results of a project analyzing the prospect that Iran will further invest in the Houthis and develop them into an enduring proxy group in Yemen. The authors focus on the history of the Houthi movement, its current relations with Iran, and possibilities for the future. To inform this analysis and better capture Iran's strategic calculus vis-à-vis the Houthis, the project also explores Iran's history of proxy development in three distinct contexts: Lebanon, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. Lessons from these cases have informed the analysis of the trajectory of the Houthi-Iran relationship, and the authors pose scenarios for the future. The project's findings should be of interest to a wide-ranging audience in the foreign policy and defense community, and particularly those interested in proxy warfare and conflict dynamics in the Middle East. The analysis can help policymakers better understand Iranian motivations throughout the region, while offering clear signals and warnings of potential escalation in Yemen.

Key Findings

The authors posit two possible relationships between the Houthis and Iran for the future: a transactional relationship or a partnership.

  • Although the Houthis are a proven fighting force, if they cannot transition into an effective governing party, they are unlikely to realize true gains; absent such change, Iran will likely maintain a largely transactional relationship with the Houthis.
  • If the Houthis can establish themselves as a competent governing and political force in Yemen, Iran might gain a formidable ally; the Houthis could prove to be a critical tool in Iran's regional strategy, helping push back against Saudi Arabia.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted by the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center within the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

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