Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi army is emerging as a unique threat to Israeli and American interests – despite being nearly 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) from the war between Israel and Hamas – as Tehran rallies its allies behind a broader Middle East conflict.
The Houthis surprised the Pentagon last Thursday by launching a series of attack drones and long-range cruise missiles from Yemen that U.S. defense officials said were intended for Israel but were intercepted over the Red Sea by the USS Carney, an American guided-missile destroyer. The Houthis have in the past threatened to attack Israel in support of Tehran and its allies in the Middle East, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But this is the first time they have acted and demonstrated these far-reaching capabilities, said U.S. and Middle Eastern officials tracking the Houthis and their military alliance with Iran.
“We must be clear that Iran is making the equipment it has provided to the Houthis for years increasingly sophisticated and deadly,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “We see that there is a pattern of continuing to help the Houthis, and the Houthis have just presented to us some of their capabilities that pose a threat to the region.”
According to Middle East analysts, the Houthis now have perhaps the most advanced arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones among Iran’s regional allies and proxies, known as the “Axis of Resistance.” However, the militia’s geographic location poses a particular threat to global trade and energy supplies. Yemen lies along the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which serves as a chokepoint for ships entering the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The Houthis are also within the sphere of influence of the Persian Gulf, through which up to 30% of the world’s oil flows.
The Houthis have shown a willingness to attack key commercial targets in recent years, particularly in the war against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These operations include the drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil refinery in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2019; a January 2021 strike in the UAE’s Abu Dhabi commercial hub; and attacks on merchant ships transiting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Tehran has spent decades building its axis of resistance, exploiting internal conflicts in the Middle East and U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This network includes Hamas, Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. But the Houthis are unique in that they have largely focused on fighting the US’s Sunni Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – and have so far withdrawn from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Houthis emerged as a powerful military force in the early 2010s after the overthrow of longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in southern Yemen. The militia members, most of whom belong to a sect of Shiite Islam, overthrew the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in 2014 and seized control of much of the Yemeni military’s equipment, including missiles, tanks and aircraft. The Houthis used it to gain control of most of northern Yemen in 2016.
Iran took advantage of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ entry into Yemen’s civil war to wipe out two of Tehran’s main regional rivals. Over the last decade, Tehran has smuggled weapons into Yemen that have significantly improved the range and precision of the Houthis’ missile and drone systems, enabling those attacks in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. During that time, the Houthis’ capabilities have in some ways evolved even beyond those of Hezbollah, widely considered Iran’s most advanced proxy force, Iranian analysts say.
“The Houthis are the only proxy of the Islamic Republic that has both land-attack cruise missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their possession, courtesy of Tehran, of course,” said Benham Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington.
Last month, The Houthis held a huge military parade in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, which demonstrated its capabilities. The show of strength included a test run of a restored fighter jet and new Iranian-made ballistic missiles with a range of more than 2,000 kilometers. The Houthis also provided advanced anti-ship ballistic missile systems.
The slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam” was printed on the side of the jet as a sign of Iranian influence.
Room for disagreement
Biden administration officials are unsure whether the Houthis are willing to further engage in military operations against the U.S. and Israel given the potential casualties in Yemen. The US is brokering peace talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which include a military ceasefire that has been in place for more than a year. A final agreement would likely consolidate most of the Shiite militia’s territorial gains over the past decade.
U.S. officials said this week that the Gaza conflict could upend Yemen’s peace process. “My biggest fear, of course, is that Yemen will be drawn into another war, and [Yemen’s] “The war is not over,” the Biden administration’s special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, said Tuesday at the US Institute for Peace in Washington.