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Houthi attacks a valuable bargaining chip for Iran

Two back-to-back events last week demonstrated Iran’s intention to escalate its attacks on Saudi Arabia, its meddling in Yemen’s affairs and its challenging of US sanctions.

On Tuesday, Iran’s official media outlets covered an unusual meeting between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a Houthi delegation, which handed a letter from the Houthi leader to the ayatollah pledging allegiance to the Iranian leader. According to Iran’s media, the letter said that the Houthis’ allegiance pledge to Khamenei was an extension of their allegiance pledge to the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali, and Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In exchange, Khamenei urged the faithful to support the Houthis’ cause.

This was the first time Iran had ever reported a meeting between the Houthis and Khamenei. It was clear that it was keen on holding this meeting and publicizing it, despite the delegation’s low level. Iran’s media commented that it was the first time that Khamenei, the highest authority in the country, had ever met with a mere spokesman of a movement, but implied that Iran overlooked that fact to demonstrate its interest in Yemen’s situation. The media also reported that, following the meeting, Iran would no longer consider the Houthis a mere de facto authority, but treat them as the only legitimate government in Yemen.

Before this meeting, Iran and the Houthis had denied any special relationship, despite the regular visits by Houthi delegations to Iran and frequent pronouncements by Lebanon’s Hezbollah — an acknowledged Iranian proxy — in support of the Houthis and admitting that its experts were fighting alongside the Houthis. In the face of mounting evidence that Iran did supply the Houthis with extensive materiel, Tehran continued to deny that it had ever provided material support for them.

The decision by Iran and the Houthis to disclose the true nature of their relationship indicates that they were no longer concerned that such publicity would hurt their interests. They probably thought that the situation was moving in their favor, especially with the internationally recognized government facing a fresh challenge to its authority in Aden.

They also appear to think that the way the UN has been dealing with them implies international recognition of the Houthis as a party on par with the government. They probably recall that, when UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths was appointed in February 2018, the Houthis had gained notoriety as a pariah militia following their ruthless murder of their former ally and president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017. But the Houthis cultivated a relationship with the new envoy, who at that time had very little knowledge of the region, and encouraged him to think that they were ready to offer tangible concessions. They sought to use the UN process to rehabilitate their image from a criminal enterprise to partners with the UN to achieve peace. Needless to say, UN mediation has failed to achieve much progress.

With the events in Aden of last week casting doubt on the viability of the government, the Houthis sought to present themselves as a credible alternative. Following the Houthi delegation’s meeting with Khamenei, and while still in Iran, they called on the international community to support their cause. The Houthis naively thought Iran’s support would help them garner support from other nations.

There was an additional reason for Iran to publicize its partnership with the Houthis at this time. After the US announced its new Iran strategy, imposed punishing sanctions and disclosed its intention to prevent Iran from exporting oil, Tehran vowed to prevent other oil producers from exporting their oil. It directed its regional proxies to attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, especially oil installations. There were several missile and drone attacks for which the Houthis claimed responsibility, although it is believed that other Iranian proxies may have carried out some of them. Thus the Houthis served a dual purpose: To carry out attacks on their own and to act as the fall guys for other Iranian proxies.

On Aug. 17, just four days after the Houthi meeting with Khamenei, a drone attack was launched against the giant Shaybah oil field in southeast Saudi Arabia. As before, the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, while their delegation was still in Tehran. They probably considered it as a token of their newly elevated relationship with Iran.

The attack on Shaybah was the most brazen and dangerous attack on Saudi oil targets to date. Although there were no casualties or disruption of its operations, targeting it proves Iran’s and the Houthis’ intention to escalate the conflict with Saudi Arabia. Shaybah is the fourth-largest oil field in the Kingdom, producing a million barrels of the high-quality extra light Arabian oil daily. If production was interrupted, it could have destabilized oil markets, at least temporarily.

The failed attack was also meant as a publicity stunt, highlighting the Houthis’ prowess by reaching a target 1,500 kilometers away from Sanaa.

Iran is expected to continue its missile and drone attacks, through proxies, against Saudi targets. As the US and its allies succeed in patrolling the Gulf and manage to form a wide coalition to protect oil tankers and safeguard international passageways in the region, Iran is finding it more difficult to harass shipping in the Gulf, but it still sees land attacks on oil installations as feasible.

Ultimately, when Iran fails to escape the American sanctions, which are beginning to bite on both the Iranian economy and government revenues, it has to accept calls for negotiations. Then the Houthi cause may be even more valuable from Iran’s point of view; as it may try to trade it for concessions from the other side. Iranian officials admit privately that they have no future in Yemen but want to hold on to it as a bargaining chip. To make it more valuable, they have to raise the Houthis’ ability to fight.