Iran’s Influence in Yemen

Lynx Fellow Maxwell Kuhns

Yemen’s civil war began in 2014, when Houthi rebels from northern Yemen revolted against the government. The Houthis, often linked to Iranian backing, seized the capital from the Sunni government in 2015.[i]In March of 2015, a Saudi backed coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in order to deter the Houthis from further gain in Yemen.[ii]

According to Cameron Glenn of the Wilson center, Houthi’s predominantly practice Zaydi Shia Islam, making up around only 35 percent of the country’s population.[iii]This specific practice of Shia Islam is different than the Shia Islam practiced by the majority of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Religion alone cannot be presented as the primary motivator as analysis typically frames MENA conflicts in the Sunni vs. Shia light. 

Iran has consistently denied accusations of support for Houthi opposition forces within Yemen. However, Major General Ali Jafari stated in November 2017 that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces were in fact aiding Houthi forces.[iv]Major General Jafari’s statement counter previous statements by Iranian officials denying involvement entirely within the conflict. Jafari concluded that the mission to Yemen was simply an “advisory” one, such as the role Iranian forces played in Syria and Iraq.[v]

Iran likely views Yemen as a pivotal point in strengthening its status in the region, as well as challenging its regional and international adversaries.[vi]The development of the Houthi’s almost mirrors Shia militias/movements developed already such as the Popular Mobilization Front (Iraq), Hezbollah (Lebanon), and militia’s still being developed in the Syrian conflict. Developing these movements allows Iran to maintain a power base long after the leaders of a certain country/region lose control. 

Material support for the Houthi’s is becoming more transparent as the conflict continues. Multiple sources have offered the possibility that Iran is providing advanced technologies to opposition forces in Yemen. Analysis of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) located in Yemen find striking similarities between the Qasef-1 and Ababil-class UAV’s of Iranian origin.[vii]Additionally, Houthi use of ballistic missiles offers insight into material aid. Missiles that didn’t exist prior to the civil conflict have been utilized several times within strikes into Saudi Arabia. The Zelzal-2, Burkan-1/2, and Qaher-1 all represent significant increase in strike capabilities not found in the Yemeni arsenal prior to this conflict.[viii][ix]

The constant fighting between the Saudi coalition and Houthi forces has led to an estimated 17,000 casualties according to UN estimates.[x]Estimates of internally displaced persons is estimated up to 2 million, with over 22 million people in need of assistance.[xi]Iranian forces are likely to provide increased assistance to Houthi forces as the Syrian conflict slows in tempo. If a ceasefire is agreed to by both sides in the Yemeni conflict; it is unlikely that Iranian assistance would be withdrawn, unless favorable conditions are given to the Shia minority in Yemen.


[i](Council on Foreign Relations 2018)

[ii]Ibid

[iii](Glenn 2018)

[iv](Majiydar 2017)

[v]Ibid

[vi](Al-Qadhi 2017)

[vii](Conflict Armament Research 2017)

[viii](Jane’s 2017)

[ix](Stratfor 2017)

[x](Council on Foreign Relations 2018)

[xi]Ibid