Yemen’s Houthi rebels: Iran’s proxies?

Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (put in power in a US-brokered political deal in 2012) remains holed up in his palace besieged by Shi'ite Houthi rebels, who drove off the guards in a gun-battle yeserday. But through intermediaries, he has reportedly expressed readiness to accept rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi's demands for constitutional changes and a power-sharing agreement with the Houthis. (Reuters, Yemen Online, Jan. 21; Middle East Online, Jan. 20) The Jerusalem Post and, less predictably, Quartz play up the notion that the Houthis are Iran's proxies. The JP headlines that with the Houthi siege of the palace, "Yemen falls into Iran's orbit." As evidence, we are told that the Houthis' popular slogan is "Death to America, Death to Israel," also popular in Iran (and everywhere else in the Middle East). Quartz leads: "On the same day that US president Barack Obama warned Congress not to push for more sanctions against Iran, the regime in Tehran demonstrated why its threat to the world is not limited to nuclear weapons." Well, Iran doesn't actually have any nuclear weapons (hello?). And are the Houthis really Iran's proxies?

First, as we have noted, the Houthis are followers of the Zaidi or "Fiver" Shi'ite sect, which is heretical to the orthodox "Twelver" Shia of Iran's ayatollahs. Tehran may be trying to groom the Houthis as proxies, but the embrace will never be a close one. A new BBC profile, "Who are the Houthis?," provides some background. The Houthis take their name from Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led the group's first uprising in 2004, seeking greater autonomy for the Zaidi heartland of Saada governorate (see map), and to protect their "religious and cultural traditions from perceived encroachment by Sunni Islamists." After Houthi was killed by the Yemeni military in late 2004, his family took charge of the movement, leading successive rebellions until a ceasefire was signed with the government in 2010.

The sensationalism about Iran is just another brand of conspiranoia. Local context is denied, and the Houthis are reduced to mere pawns on the Grand Chessboard. The legitimate greivances of the Zaidi people as an excluded minority are invisible. Ironically, but hardly surprisingly, the Houthis themselves are subject to the same malady. CNN and the Christian Broadcasting Network (which, like the Jerusalem Post, may have its own reasons to highlight news unflattering to the Houthis) note that  Abdel-Malik al-Houthi is claiming that there is an international "conspiracy" to link Yemen to the Paris attacks, implying that the Houthis' arch-enemies, the Sunni-extremist al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are US-controlled puppets. And around it goes.