The extent of Tehran’s control over the Yemen-based militia has once again come under focus.
In the last couple of months whenever Houthi rebels in Yemen have fired missiles or flown drones to hit oil installations and airports in Saudi Arabia, the blame has inevitably been pinned on Iran.
Indeed, Tehran has supplied weapons and assisted the militia with technology such as assembling drones and cruise missiles.
But experts say Iran's logistical support to the Houthis does not necessarily translate into Tehran having a complete sway over the actions of the armed militia that has been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since 2015.
“I will categorise Iranian-Houthi relationship as control slash collaboration,” says Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor, a think-tank. However, Iran is now trying to tilt that balance in its favor, he says.
The September 14th attack on key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia has brought the Iran-Houthi ties into focus. The explosions, probably caused by cruise missiles, damaged Abqaiq, the world’s largest oil processing facility.
The Houthis, who have hit targets inside Saudi Arabia on multiple occasions, claimed responsibility for the attack.
“For the Yemeni group, higher level of access provided by Iran to its asymmetrical weaponry arsenal does per se increase the group’s capabilities of striking more critical infrastructure,” says Tamer Badawi, an Iran analyst.
In return, Tehran can ask the Houthis to strike certain targets and even offer advanced weaponry to make them do it, he says.
There are doubts if the cruise missiles or drones were launched from the Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen, which is hundreds of miles away from Saudi oil facilities, making a precision hit difficult.
Many experts on the Yemen conflict say it’s a farfetched assertion to say the Houthis are entirely dependent on Iran.
The perception that the two are linked by a common Islamic sect is not entirely correct either. The Houthis are Zaidi Shias who have beliefs distinct from the Shiism practiced in Iran.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, was gripped by an Houthi insurgency in 2004 as a result of a power struggle between local actors.
Iran didn’t begin helping the rebel group until 2009 with a small number of weapons. But in 2015, after the group captured Yemeni capital and drove President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi out of the country, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia began bombarding the militia.
That’s when Iran came into the picture and started supplying more sophisticated weapons to the group, which was fighting its regional nemesis.
“We don’t have that level of detail to suggest how much control Iran exercises over the Houthis,” says Dr. Kenneth Katzman, who has analyzed the regional situation for US Congress for years.
“There maybe an increasingly close relationship. I think four years ago when the Arab coalition started this offensive against the Houthis there probably was not big a connection but it has gotten closer.”
Military experts say Iran has helped equip the Houthis with drones and cruise missiles, many of which are rip-offs of Iranian weaponry.
But this relationship is not as close as what Iran has with the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, experts say.
“This gives plausible deniability to Iran. The Houthis can make their own choices,” says Bohl of Stratfor.
“If Houthis have carried out the attack it would have come at the request of the Iranians as opposed to the direction of the Iranians,” he says.
“Given that what Saudis are doing in Yemen, the Houthis wouldn’t have any hesitation is following such an Iranian request.”
The Saudi-led coalition has conducted an intense campaign of airstrikes against the Houthi targets, which human rights groups say have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.