When the Houthis, a Shia rebel group in Yemen, forced the country’s pro-Western president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to flee the capital this past January, many in the region concluded that another Arab state had fallen into Tehran’s lap—a result, as one prominent commentator put it, of Iran’s “offensive state, the likes of which we have not seen in modern history.”

That fear, articulated most forcefully by the Gulf states, probably overstates Iran’s role; turf wars have troubled Yemen for decades, and Tehran has never been a kingmaker there. It is true, however, that the Islamic Republic’s footprints have always marked Yemeni soil, even in the days of the Shah, who supported Yemeni fighters against militant Marxists in the 1960s. And that is still the case today. So, even if the coup itself says little about Iran’s regional ambitions, what Tehran does next—or what it doesn’t do—will be telling nonetheless.

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

The Islamic Republic first gravitated toward Yemen in the late 1980s, following the conclusion of the Iran–Iraq war. When Yemen and Saudi Arabia fell out in 1990 over Sanaa’s decision to side with Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Tehran seized the opportunity to cultivate closer ties. 

But Yemen was still too inconsequential to merit much of Iran’s attention, and so Iran’s influence during this period was mostly ideological. In the early 1990s, for example, Iran hosted Houthi religious students, who reportedly returned to Yemen inspired by Tehran’s anti-Western revolutionary message. Among those students was Hussein Badr Al-Deen Houthi, who led the Houthi movement until his capture and death in 2004, and borrowed Iranian rhetoric to coin the group’s motto: “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

Direct Iranian intervention in Yemeni affairs is a more recent development. From 2004 to 2010, the Houthis fought six wars with the government of the country’s Saudi-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Gulf States, alarmed by Tehran’s rising regional star following the fall of Saddam in 2003, accused Tehran of providing the Houthis with material support. Independent analysts, however, were skeptical. As Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group, put it in 2004, “The Iranians are just brilliant. They play no role whatsoever [in Yemen], but they get all the credit, and so they are capitalizing on it.”

Yemen was, however, becoming increasingly entangled in a sectarian power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2009, Yemen’s civil war briefly spilled over onto Saudi soil, and Riyadh continued to back Saleh, fearing that Tehran would jump at any opportunity to help topple him and install a friendlier regime. Tehran did welcome Saleh’s departure in 2012, and Iranian officials began to rhetorically support the Houthis, but the true extent of their involvement was unclear.

Today, the Gulf States remain adamant that Iran is inciting Houthi activity. And Tehran, for its part, continues to overstate its own role. But the reality is that the latest Houthi upsurge is a product of an alliance of convenience with Saleh, who wants to return his family to power. The Houthis were only able to capture Sanaa in September 2014 when the Yemeni military, with which Saleh still holds significant sway, largely held its fire. And in November, the United Nations formally acknowledged this connivance by sanctioning Saleh and two Houthi commanders for colluding to bring down the Hadi presidency.

FACING UP TO THE FACTS

There is little doubt that since 2012, Tehran has tried to capitalize on the shifting dynamics in Yemen. Hardliners in Tehran genuinely believe that the Houthi movement can become, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, a pawn in Tehran’s regional game; Ali Shirazi, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative to the country’s elite Quds force, told the Iranian press as much in January 2015. But unlike Hezbollah, which has provided Iran with a tangible gateway to the Mediterranean, the Houthi movement cannot grant Tehran enduring access to the Bab Al Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

The current state of affairs in Yemen presents Iran with two basic options. Tehran can actively support the movement against Hadi with the hope that the fragile alliance against him will last, or it can face up to the fact that it was Hadi’s political posturing—not sectarian ideology—that propelled the Houthis forward, giving Iran little leverage to tame the country’s chaos. The internal debate in Tehran suggests that Iranian leaders are leaning toward the second path.

Tempting as it is to prod Saudi Arabia’s exposed underbelly, Iranian leaders know that, even with their help, the Houthi movement does not have the numbers or the clout to control Yemen, let alone consolidate its latest territorial gains, unless the group makes broader political concessions. The most likely alternative to a national political compromise, which the United Nations is already trying to broker, is full-fledged civil war. And that could carry serious downsides.

Fueling an unwinnable civil war in Yemen, which has the potential to turn into a genuine sectarian conflict, would only strengthen Tehran’s reputation as a sectarian power bent on expanding its influence in Arab lands without regard to the resulting destruction. A prolonged period of chaos would also strengthen al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—hardly a positive development given the group’s goal of taking on Iran.

OPPORTUNITY COSTS

With Hadi now in retreat at the port city of Aden, Yemen could soon experience a de facto partition between the north and the south. Tehran knows that, at this point, fixing Yemen lies well beyond its political and financial capabilities. The impoverished country needs not hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, as Hezbollah in Lebanon requires, but many billions. And Iran, still struggling under the weight of Western sanctions, simply does not have that kind of cash; only the Gulf States have the resources to reverse Yemen’s economic disintegration.

Tehran also needs to calibrate its actions in Yemen with its regional goals. The Yemeni crisis is coinciding with heightened Iranian interventions across the Middle East. Given Iran’s deep involvement in Iraq and Syria, the country is overstretched and likely looking for ways to reduce tensions with the Saudis.

In this sense, Yemen also presents an opportunity. In his 2013 election campaign, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did not once mention the country. He did, however, repeatedly mention the need to overhaul the Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia—a goal holding back in Yemen would serve. In the weeks to come, then, analysts should look out not only for signs of Iranian meddling, but also for Tehran’s absence. The latter outcome would be just as significant, suggesting that moderates in Tehran still hold sway.

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