Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 16
Finally, the government has accused the rebels of receiving foreign backing. While top officials, such as the president, have been reluctant to formally finger the Islamic Republic, and although it maintains diplomatic relations, regularly hosts Iranian officials and even asserts full support for its nuclear program,67 Yemen has strongly insinuated Iranian complicity with the rebels. In the words of one official:
The Believing Youth started their activities under different names in the 1980s in the context of the Iranian revolution. They were trained in Iran during the Ayatollah Khomeini’s era with the objective of spreading the revolution. Between that time and 2004, the Huthis prepared themselves to launch operations against the state.68
In 2005, a special criminal court sentenced two Zaydi clerics, Yahya al-Daylami and Muhammad Muftah, to death and eight years in prison, respectively, for maintaining contacts with Iran, supporting the rebels and aiming to topple the regime.69
The government has yet to support these allegations with hard evidence,70 and in 2009 President Salih played down the role of external actors.71 Tempering its accusation, the government now claims that funding could be channelled through religious or economic
66 Western diplomats in particular express scepticism. As one put it, “there is no evidence of attempts by the Huthis to carry out terrorist operations against Western interests”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 12 January 2009.
67 Saba News (official Yemeni news agency), 14 May 2009.
68 Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.
69 Both were freed by President Salih in a May 2006 amnesty but remained under judicial and police pressure, facing possible rearrest. Muhammad Muftah was detained again in May 2008 after criticising military operations in Saada in the Yemeni press and was released a few months later. Crisis Group interview, Zaydi scholar, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.
70 In January 2009, the interior ministry gave Crisis Group reports purporting to document Iranian financial, ideological and logistical support. However, the reports (labelled “top secret”, sirri lil-ghaya) raised more questions than they answered. Accusations were not adequately sourced and often came from unidentified institutions. Overall, the evidence appeared incomplete and biased.
71 When asked about Iran, Salih downplayed the role of external actors and acknowledged that Libya and Iran, like Qatar, had sought to mediate. He denied involvement by Lebanon’s Hizbollah, while intimating that connections might exist between the Huthis and the Lebanese movement and that certain military skills might have been transferred from Lebanon to Yemen. Al-Hayat, 28 March 2009.
actors rather than transferred directly from Iranian diplomats to rebel leaders. Ali al-Anissi argued:
Despite their denial and the fact they say that they are against foreign intervention, the Iranians fund the Huthis, for example through hawzas72 and charities. Furthermore, presenters of Iranian radio and television programs call for support for the Huthis and refer to them as Twelver Shiites.
Yet, he added, “Iranians are not arming the Huthis. The weapons they use are Yemeni. Most actually come from fighters [government soldiers and allied militia members] who fought against the socialists during the 1994 war and then sold them”.73
Opposition politicians question claims that Iran is providing the rebels with either financial or weapons support,74 while Huthis themselves have rejected outright any suggestion of collusion with Tehran.75 Western and other diplomats based in Sanaa on the whole agree, while conceding some non-governmental Iranian actors could be involved. Summing up a more general view, one Western diplomat said, “there is no clear evidence of Iranian involvement but small signs of a role by Iranian charitable organisations. Overall, however, the conflict appears chiefly fuelled by internal grievances”.76
B. The Huthi and Zaydi Revivalist Narrative
The Huthi and Zaydi revivalist narrative directly contradicts the government’s. Although voiced by people with different agendas and positions, some
72 Hawzas are prestigious Shiite religious seminaries.
73 Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, Sanaa, 14 January 2009.
74 Crisis Group interview, Hasan Zayd, secretary general of al-Haqq party, Sanaa, 2 January 2009.
75 In Yahya al-Huthi’s words, “Iran plays no role whatsoever. It is only Westerners, Saudis and the Yemeni government that accuse it of involvement. In fact, we do not need the Iranians in any way, as Zaydis have their own symbols, references and reasons to fight, and these are sufficient to wage the rebellion”. Crisis Group telephone interview, Berlin, 3 February 2009.
76 Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Sanaa, January 2009. An Arab ambassador added: “Although there might not be any financial support coming directly from the Iranian state, foreign money is reaching the rebels. Iranian companies invest in local Yemeni companies, and the money is then channelled to the Huthis, via local families”. Crisis Group interview, Arab diplomat, Sanaa, January 2009.