Although the Houthi militia claimed the attacks on Saudi Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia on September 14, experts doubt that the drones were launched from Yemen. Despite the Houthis’ affirmations and Iranian denials, investigations by the US and the Arab Coalition have demonstrated the weapons used were Iranian, and the location of the oil installations in northeastern Saudi Arabia makes them almost certainly out of range from Yemen.
Regardless of the origin of the attacks, it is clear that Iran was the mastermind of the operation. By claiming responsibility for the attacks, the Houthis have demonstrated that Iran is their priority – and that they are prepared to put Yemen at risk of retaliation for the greater goal of Iran’s regional project.
Iran has a clear motive. Tehran has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the flow of oil in the region with attacks in response to US sanctions, part of Washington’s “maximum economic pressure” campaign to counter Tehran’s malign role in the Middle East. President Hassan Rouhani explicitly threatened to affect “neighboring countries’” oil exports as sanctions squeeze Iranian exports: Iran’s export capacity has reportedly dropped from 2.7 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil to as little as 100,000 bpd in July.
Given what we know about the attacks, it is clear that the Houthis are covering up for Iran. Even in the likelihood that experts cannot confirm the origin of the attacks, it should be a given that the Houthis have claimed them on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
This is not the first time the Houthis have claimed an attack which they did not conduct. US officials previously concluded that Iran-backed militias in Iraq carried out the drone attack on a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline in May this year, despite the Houthis claiming responsibility. Iran benefits from having its proxies cover for it. Maintaining a degree of plausible deniability allows Tehran to continue to present itself as peaceful and open to negotiations. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and other officials have also put forward the narrative that attacks against Saudi Arabia from Yemen are “justified” retaliation against the Arab Coalition - attacks from Iran or Iraq are more difficult to justify as retaliation and more obviously aggression.
But why are the Houthis agreeing to cover for Iran? There are three main reasons.
First, the Houthis cannot say no to Iran, their most important financial and military backer. While the Houthis do have agency and a local following, they need Iran in their attempts to control Yemen. Iran has illegally smuggled weapons to the Houthis, including Qasef-1 UAV drones, and fuel which a UN report in January valued at $30 million. Iran’s other chief proxy, the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, has also played a key role in enhancing the Houthis’ military capabilities. Hezbollah commanders have trained Houthi forces – in 2013, the US Treasury sanctioned former Hezbollah special operations commander Khalil Harb in connection with his command of Hezbollah activities in Yemen. This support is crucial for the Houthis.
Second, the Houthis have a strong incentive to shield Iran from liability because they are politically and ideologically aligned as part of the regional so-called “Axis of Resistance.” Like Iran, the Houthis self-define as opposed to the US, Israel, and the countries of the Arab Coalition, and allied with non-state militias and Iranian proxy groups in Iraq and Lebanon. The Houthis therefore have a regional interest in promoting Iran’s position. Their readiness to accept responsibility for the attacks on behalf of Iran shows that they act as part of a regional dynamic, and not just as a local actor as some commentators have claimed.
Third, by claiming attacks on adversaries, the Houthis seek to improve their standing among their followers. Apparently demonstrating that they can launch attacks on foreign countries as “revenge” for the Arab Coalition’s involvement in Yemen makes them look strong domestically. It can also be seen as sending a message to their enemies that they can strike Riyadh with impunity.
When assessing the Houthis’ incentives, it is important to consider the features of their relationship with Iran. The Houthis have been both empowered and abused by Iran, which helped them get to power - only to dictate its terms afterwards.
There are some in the Houthi movement who do not accept IRGC orders and are keen on portraying the movement as independent. These Houthis often adhere to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress, or are loyal to prominent Zaydi Shiite politicians from Sanaa. These “Sanaa elites” do not have the same access and power to the leadership as other Houthis from Saada, but they are still an important part of the movement. However, they have been sidelined by Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the leader of the movement, who completely adheres to Tehran’s interests and would stop at nothing to implement them. The Iran-allied Houthi leadership has sought to control the movement by detaining and abusing internal opponents and forcing many Yemenis to mobilize to protect its interests.
As a result, the organization remains closely aligned with Iran, despite both parties trying to manipulate the international community and sow confusion regarding their joint agenda. Unfortunately, many analysts and policymakers have been more inclined to consider the Houthis an independent non-state actor, rather than an Iranian-allied proxy despite the clear evidence. The Aramco attacks are the latest case, with experts being misled and seeking to find hard evidence rather than looking at the Iran-Houthi relationship behind the cover up.
The relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Houthis has long been based on plausible deniability to advance Tehran’s aims. As long as the international community continues to naively accept Tehran’s narrative, there will be more attacks that harm the region, the global economy – and, most of all, the Yemeni people, who continue to suffer from the brutality of war.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. She tweets @YemeniFatima.