GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Ambiguous Connections: Iran and the Yemeni Houthis
Paper Proposal Text :
On March 7, 2015, General Hussein Salami, the Deputy Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), claimed that “the [power] of the Islamic Revolution has been stretched to Yemen.” He also added that the “Islamic Revolution has influenced states and people from the Mediterranean Sea to the Bab el-Mandeb in Yemen.” Since the attacks in Paris in November 2015, Iran’s regional role has been unprecedentedly bold. Amidst the raging fires of the Middle East, Tehran’s stability and determination to counter the ISIS and support for its allies in Syria and Iraq has highlighted the threat of Iran for the Arab sheikhdom of the Persian Gulf.

While much ink has been spilled on the reasons behind Tehran’s support for the Houthis, there has been an unfortunate void on fundamental motive for Iran to build its connections with Yemeni Zaidi tribes. In fact, Tehran’s support for the Yemeni Houthis has been seen by many as a strategy to “export” the Iranian revolution. Supporters of this theory point to the words of various senior Iranian officials. While there has been no strong, confirmed proof of Iran’s direct intervention in the country, its leaders have provided verbal and diplomatic support for the Houthis, particularly after the launch of the Saudi-led military campaign in March 2015. By influencing developments in Yemen, Iran has been accused, most notably by Riyadh, of seeking to pressure the Saudi regime to tread more lightly in Iraq and Syria, which Iran views as part of its sphere of influence.

While this rhetoric is not irrelevant, a desire to “export the revolution” has not been a decisive factor in Iran’s foreign policy. Rather, it is a deeper, longer-term understanding of Iran’s geographic vulnerabilities that has pushed Tehran to build ties with both Assad and the Yemeni Houthis. From this perspective, the paper argues that it has been Iran’s “strategic loneliness” that has been a final factor for Iran’s support for the Houthis.

Located in the heart of the greater Middle East, Iran lacks natural defensive borders, coupled with its vast territory – characteristics that have historically attracted different tribes and nations to the Iranian plateau – have given Iran a deep historical insecurity. This, combined with the fact that Iran is the only Shiite Muslim and Persian-speaking country in the region, has led Iran to suffer from what has been dubbed “strategic loneliness.” Strategic loneliness refers to the fact that Iran by design and by default has been strategically ‘lonely’ and deprived of meaningful alliances and great power bandwagoning. To compensate for its strategic loneliness, Tehran’s leaders have historically sought to defend the country’s national integrity and independence beyond its borders. In other words, Iran’s deterrence strategy has largely relied on its ability to project power externally. Indeed, Iran has tended to use militant groups in the Middle East as a way of deterring foreign threats. Today, Iran has relationships with militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria’s Shabiha militias and the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Houthis in Yemen to defend Iran far beyond its borders. It is in this context that Tehran’s connections with the Houthis should be understood.
From this point of view, the present study is an attempt to set forth a new understanding of the emergence and fluctuation of Iran’s ties with the Houthis. I will accomplish this by locating the Iran-NSA relationships within an examination of the larger historical context of state-NSA relationships in the region. Here, the story of the evolution of Iran’s ties with the Houthis can be narrated as the unfolding of constant interaction between states and non-state forces in the Middle East. In this framework, the proposed work will undertake these main tasks:
A) Tracing the history of the ebbs and flows within Iran’s ties with the Houthiss through a geopolitical lens.
B) Explaining how Iran’s ties with the Houthis unfolded and understanding why Iran’s proxies in Yemen evolved in the way they did.
C) Assessing the broad contours of the evolutionary trajectory of Iran’s ties with the Houthis and its possible future path(s) for the geopolitics of the Middle East and its regional balance of power.