U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said Iran is “obviously” giving Yemen’s Houthi rebels military support. But despite Tehran ratcheting up its rhetoric against bombing campaign in the country led by regional rivals Saudi Arabia, the actual level of Iran’s support for the Houthis remains an open question, with many experts doubting that the rebels are receiving much outside help.
Kerry told “PBS NewsHour” on Wednesday that he believed Iran has been providing military assistance to the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia rebel group currently controlling large swaths of Yemen: “There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran. There are a number of flights every single week that have been flying in, and we trace those flights, and we know this.”
That view fits well into the narrative that what is going on in Yemen forms part of a wider fight for influence in the region.
Tehran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia has, in coordination with nine other Sunni-majority states, launched waves of airstrikes in Yemen for more than two weeks in an attempt to roll back territorial gains by Shia rebels. The United States has supported the operation in the form of military support and intelligence sharing.
“We’re well aware of the support that Iran has been giving to Yemen, and Iran needs to recognize that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries, in other countries,” Kerry said.
The Houthis have twice displaced Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi — first from the capital Sanaa, which they overran in September, and then the southern port city of Aden, which is now the scene of intense fighting. The Saudi-led effort was launched ostensibly to restore Hadi's remit.
Kerry gave no details about specific assistance Iran had given and when it had done so, but it seemed unlikely that it could have happened since the start of the Saudi-led campaign, because of a de facto blockade of the country.
And some analysts have expressed skepticism at the level of Iranian support.
“I think what is happening is that Houthis and the Iranians have common interests, but there’s very little good journalism that’s been done to uncover the true extent of that relationship between the Houthis and Iran,” Safia Al-Ahmad, a journalist who produced a documentary on the Houthis for PBS Frontline told PBS journalist Gwen Ifil on Tuesday.
Ahmad said, “they do have a connection, but not to the extent that is being covered in the media at the moment by describing them as a Shia militia backed by Iran. I think that’s an overstatement.”
Nonetheless, Kerry’s remarks echoed those made by Saudi officials earlier in the week. Brigadier-General Ahmed Asseri said at a briefing on the conflict Wednesday that Iran had been training Yemen’s Houthi fighters.
Iran denied the “baseless accusations” and in protest summoned Riyadh’s charge d’affaires on Thursday.
“The Houthis, unlike Hezbollah and other Shia movements, do not take directions from Tehran, and have received relatively small amounts of aid,” wrote Robert Worth, a veteran Middle East journalist, at the start of the campaign in the New York Review of Books.
Regardless of the extent of any military or financial support, however, Iran has been increasingly vocal in its opposition to the ongoing fighting.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the Saudis of genocide Thursday, saying, “Riyadh will not emerge victorious in its aggression.”
That uptick in rhetoric, however, could be an indication of the limited role Tehran is actually playing on the ground.
“The reason why we are seeing such language from the supreme leader is that his hands — or rather the Iranian government’s hands — are pretty tied at this point,” Adam Baron, a Yemen analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Guardian. “In terms of providing financial or military support for the Houthis, it’s very hard to see how they would be able to do it. Making these strong statements are almost their only option.”