The Yemeni military is currently engaged in a large offensive against well-armed, Iranian-backed Zaydi Shiite militants in the north of the country, resulting in over 100,000 people leaving their homes. The Saudis are concerned about the instability spreading inside their borders, and the West as a whole should be concerned about how a militant Shiite enclave in Yemen could give Iran the capabilities to strike inside the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa and shut down traffic through the Red Sea.
The militant Zaydi Shiites are often referred to as Houthis in order to specify their radical strain within the Zaydi community, named after their spiritual leader, the late Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, killed in 2004. They are currently led by his brothers with Abdul-Malik taking the leading role.
The followers of the al-Houthi family leading the rebellion, which call themselves “The Young Believers,” are rabidly anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-democratic and seek to overthrow the current government and replace it with a theocracy. Hussein al-Houthi’s father, Badreddin, who led an uprising in 2005 and is accused of receiving safe harbor in Iran in 2004, is quoted as saying “We are for justice. We do not know this democracy you speak of.” They stand against the rest of the Zaydis in Yemen, which includes President Saleh and makes up about 40 to 45% of the overall population.
This is the sixth offensive by the Yemeni military since the first uprising by the Zaydi Shiite rebels in 2004, and since then, thousands have died and the conflict has steadily escalated. The Yemenis have consistently blamed the strength of the militants on support from Iran, a claim supported by their use of the Katyusha rockets often fired by Hezbollah. Some of the rebels were reported in July 2004 as flying Hezbollah’s flag and each fighter was said to be paid $100, prompting President Saleh to ask “Where does he [Hussein al-Houthi] get all this money? Who is the party financing him and to what end?”
The Yemeni military has captured six arms depots used by the rebels which included machine guns, rockets, and other weapons manufactured in Iran. In 2005, a Yemeni judge sentenced Yahya Hussein al-Duleimi to death for having contact with the Iranian regime in order to help overthrow the government and even traveling to Iran with others to help them organize for the goal. Al-Duleimi and other imam imprisoned for his contact with the Iranians for the same purpose were pardoned by President Saleh in May 2006, and over 200 other rebels were released.
The Iranians have numerous reasons for supporting the rebels. The more unstable the Middle East is, the higher the price of oil will become. The ruling regime is suffering a massive financial crisis, fueling its own internal unrest that threatens their survival. Such instability also reminds the Arab states and the West as a whole of the power Iran can project should it need to, hoping to deter any meaningful action against their nuclear program. The Shiite rebels in Yemen provides a proxy force that can carry out attacks on targets yielding maximum economic damage, such as shipping through the Red Sea and oil fields located in the Shiite-populated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
However, Iran’s covert support to anti-government militants in Yemen hasn’t been limited only to Shiites, but includes extensive support to Al-Qaeda. As thoroughly documented in a previous article , Al-Qaeda operatives are linking up with their colleagues by traveling through Iran, and there have been reports of Ayman al-Zawahiri sending a letter to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps thanking the regime for their support in Yemen.
The Iranian media has rejected the allegations, and the rebels have accused the Yemeni government of working with Al-Qaeda to fight the rebels and claims that the Saudis have launched bombing raids in support of the military offensive. Other reports have surfaced that the U.S. is playing an indirect role in supporting Egyptian shipments of much-needed supplies to the Yemeni military. These reports have been categorically denied, but the fact remains that the battle is a front in the struggle between Iran and the Arab states aligned with the U.S.
The West has been fighting the Iranian-Syrian axis in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza. The battle has now spread to the Arabian Peninsula, and should Iran be the victor, the fate of some of the most critical shipping lanes and oil fields will be in the hands of the mullahs.