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“The Houthis Are Not Iranian Proxies”: Helen Lackner on the History & Politics of Yemen’s Ansar Allah

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The U.S. continues to launch airstrikes on Yemen in response to the campaign of missile and drone attacks on commercial ships along key global trade routes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden led by Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis. The Houthi strikes have expanded from targets connected to Israel, in protest of the siege and bombing of Gaza, to ships affiliated with the U.S. and U.K. in what the group calls acts of self-defense. “The Houthis have been extremely explicit and repeat on an almost daily basis that their attacks on ships in the Red Sea will stop as soon as the Gaza war ends,” says Helen Lackner, author of several books on Yemen, who describes the history of the Houthis, the political landscape in Yemen, and debunks the idea the group is controlled by Iran. “The Iranian involvement has become greater, but it’s very important to know that the Houthis are an independent movement. The Houthis are not Iranian proxies. … They make their own decisions.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The U.S. military carried out new airstrikes in Yemen today, targeting 10 drones and a ground control station that it said, quote, “presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the region.” The airstrikes are the latest targeting the Houthis. The group, also known as Ansar Allah, has waged a campaign of attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since November 19th in response to Israel’s assault on Gaza.

On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command said its forces shot down an anti-ship cruise missile. According to CNN, the missile came within a mile of a U.S. destroyer before it was shot down, marking the closest a Houthi attack has come to a U.S. warship.

Meanwhile, the Houthis said they would stage more attacks on U.S. and British warships in the Red Sea in what they called acts of self-defense. This is Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Sarea on Wednesday.

YAHYA SAREA: [translated] The Yemeni Armed Forces will confront the American-British escalation with escalation and will not hesitate to carry out comprehensive and effective military operations in retaliation to any British-American foolishness against beloved Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: The Houthi campaign targeting shipping has affected a key route for global trade between Asia, the Middle East and Europe, with several shipping companies suspending transit through the Red Sea. On Thursday, Italy’s defense minister warned the shipping disruptions threaten to destabilize Italy’s economy. This comes as the European Union’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said on Wednesday the EU plans to launch a naval mission of its own within three weeks to help defend cargo ships in the Red Sea.

For more, we’re joined by Helen Lackner, the author of several books on Yemen, including Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War and Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. She’s been involved with Yemen for over half a century, lived there for a total of more than 15 years between the '70s and the 2010s. She's joining us from Oxford, England.

Helen Lackner, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you tell us who the Houthis are and explain what their demands are, the significance of what’s happening in the Red Sea?

HELEN LACKNER: Well, thank you very much for inviting me.

Yes, I think I’ll start with the second half of your question, which relates directly to what has been happening and the various announcements you’ve just made. And the Houthis have been extremely explicit and repeat on an almost daily basis that their attacks on ships in the Red Sea will stop as soon as the Gaza war ends and humanitarian and other supplies are allowed into Gaza, and therefore the Palestinians will no longer be under the threat and the horrors that you’ve earlier described and that most of us have seen on our screens for many, many weeks. So, the important thing is that although the U.S. and the U.K. claim that they’re only defending free movement in the Red Sea and refuse to accept any connection between this and the war in Gaza, for the Houthis it’s absolutely straightforward and explicit that, number one, they’re only targeting ships that have any connection with Israel — whether they’re going to Israel, coming from Israel, delivering stuff owned by Israelis, or whatever, any connection whatever — and that other ships are not targeted — except, of course, now. Since the U.S. and U.K. strikes have started, they are also targeting U.S. and U.K. ships. So, they’re absolutely explicit that all other ships are welcome to travel through the Red Sea and that there is — you know, there is complete freedom of movement for any ship other than an Israeli- or U.K.- or U.S.-connected one. And I think that’s extremely important.

And the reason the Houthis have taken this action in support of Palestine is that one of the very fundamental policy issues or ideological positions that the Houthis have is the support for Palestine and, more directly, being anti-Israelis. The Houthis are — the Houthis’ foreign policy is quite clearly summarized in their basic slogan of “death to America and death to Israel.” They are absolutely — you know, their positions are absolutely straightforward on these points. So, although they are willing to allow other ships through, they are actually, up to a certain point, not displeased at the fact that the Americans and the U.S. are now actually targeting their various launch positions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Helen, could you give us some background, though? What are the origins of this movement? And how is that they came to play such a prominent role in Yemen?

HELEN LACKNER: Yeah. So, the Houthi movement started in the 1980s, 1990s. I think what you need to understand is that, in terms of religious sects, Yemen is divided into two basic sects: a Sunni sect of — called al-Shafi’is, who basically live in the majority of the country, and a branch of Shi’ism called the Zaydis, who live basically in the mountainous highlands of Yemen. And the Houthis are al-Zaydis. And in that sense — and again, within the Zaydi movement, there’s a certain variety, in the sense that the Houthis, I would say, are extremist Zaydists, and they’ve developed their ideology and their policies to strengthen their own branch of Zaydism. And they basically emerged in response to the rise of Sunni Salafi fundamentalism within their own area in the far north of Yemen. And so there have been conflicts and problems, you know, arising since the 1990s.

Between 2004 and 2010, there was a series of six wars between the Houthis facing and fighting the then-regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. And this ended, basically — each one ended with a ceasefire which was promptly broken. The reason the last one in 2010 was not broken was as the result of the uprisings in 2011 of the — you know, known as the Arab Spring in various places. And that was a moment when the Houthis joined with the revolutionaries and basically took a position against — you know, they continued their position against the regime. So, they then were for — during what was a transition — supposedly, a transition period between the Saleh regime and what should have become a more democratic regime in 2014, the Houthis then changed their alliances, and indeed Saleh changed his alliance, so they operated together against the transitional government. And then, eventually, that allowed them to take over the capital Sana’a in 2014 and then to oust the existing transitional government in early 2015.

And that’s when, really, the war started, which was then internationalized from March 2015 with the intervention of what was known as the Saudi-led coalition, which was basically a coalition led by the Saudis and the Emiratis, with a few other states with minor roles, but supported actively by the U.S., the Europeans and the British and others.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was the point at which —

HELEN LACKNER: So, those are really —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sorry, just to clarify, what was the point at which the Iranians started backing the Houthis? Was it in the moment when the Saudi-led bombing began, in 2015, or was it prior to that? And if you could also clarify the distinction between — as you said, the Yemenis are Zaydi Shias, and to what extent Zaydis are ideologically or theologically aligned with the dominant form of Shi’ism in Iran, and what that has to do with Iran’s complicity or support for Houthis, whether or not now they do as Iran says?

HELEN LACKNER: Yeah. Thank you for these, for bringing up these points. The Iranian role at the time, in 2015, when we’re in the internationalized civil war started, was minimal. The Iranian involvement with the Houthis, and prior to that and since then, has always been connected with, partly, theological connections, but differences. So, in that sense, the Houthis are differentiating themselves from other Zaydis by having adopted a number of the rituals and activities and approaches of the Iranian Twelvers. It’s all a matter of how many imams they trust or they believe in after the Prophet Muhammad. But in practice, the Houthis are getting closer to the Iranians in — to the Iranian Shi’ism over the last decades, but they are still — sorry, the last decade, but they are still, you know, quite distinct. So the alliance is much more a political alliance.

And the Iranian involvement, which was really very, very insignificant at the beginning of this war, has increased over time, and is primarily — you know, has been, for a while, mainly financial and of providing fuel and things like that to the Houthis, but more recently has been much more focused on military activities and primarily on the supply of advanced technology. If you look at the Houthi weaponry — and I’m no military expert — but the Houthi weaponry originally was basically a lot of Scuds and other Russian-supplied materials and also some American-supplied materials to the Saleh regime. And these have been upgraded and improved and changed, to some extent, thanks to Iranian support. So, in that sense, you have more — the Iranian involvement has become greater.

But it’s very important to note that the Houthis are an independent movement. The Houthis are not Iranian proxies. They are not Iranian servants. They don’t do what the Iranians tell them to do. They make their own decisions. If their decisions and their policies coincide with those of Iran, then, you know, there’s no issue. But if they don’t, they don’t do it. So it’s very important, I think, to destroy this myth of Iran-backed Houthis in a single word as if it’s kind of a conglomerate. That is not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen, if —

HELEN LACKNER: I hope that briefly answered your point.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, and we don’t have much time, but I did want to ask you about the Houthi support in Yemen, whether it’s increased, and the Houthi human rights record.

HELEN LACKNER: Yeah, great. Well, yeah, as you said, we haven’t got much time. Basically, the Houthi — the support for the Houthis in Yemen has increased, has multiplied. I can’t even imagine — find a suitable terminology to say it. The Houthis, you know, who run an extremely authoritarian and autocratic regime, which is not a pleasant regime for people to live under, you know, and was lacking support — and you have to remember that the Houthis actually rule and run the lives of two-thirds of the population of Yemen, so, you know, about 20 million people live under Houthi rule, and it’s not a pleasant place to be. There’s no freedom of expression. You know, women are oppressed. All kinds of negative features connected with Houthi rule.

But the Yemeni population are extremely supportive of Palestine. And therefore, this action of the Houthis has, you know, really, really increased their support. If you take a look and you maybe show on your screen some of the demonstrations that happen every Friday in Sana’a and in other cities, they’ve become absolutely massive, because although people may not like living under Houthi rule, they agree with the Houthi actions in support of Palestine. And so, that has increased and improved their popularity an enormous amount, not only in the area they rule, but also in the rest of Yemen, which is, you know, not ruled by them.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Lackner, we want to thank you so much for being with us, author of a number of books on Yemen, including Yemen in Crisis: The Road to War and Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. She’s been involved with Yemen for over 50 years, has lived there for about 15.

Coming up, an investigative report by the BBC reveals new details of how American mercenaries were hired by the United Arab Emirates to run an assassination campaign in Yemen. Back in 60 seconds.

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