On March 26, 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began attacking Yemen. The coalition aimed to rout the Houthi movement and forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and restore the government of ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Depending on the media outlet, Iran’s role in this conflict has been depicted as nefarious or benevolent, sectarian or liberating. There is both truth and error in many of these media representations.
Much of the Western narrative has falsely portrayed Iran’s control over and relationship with the Houthis, while Iranian outlets, broadcasting in various languages, have, unsurprisingly, communicated a biased Iranian perspective on the conflict, including about Iran’s role in the war. Iranian media accounts also shed much light on the Islamic Republic’s perspective on the Yemeni war, which is critical to understanding what Iran is doing in Yemen and why it is doing it.
A Skewed Western Media Narrative
According to some major Western media outlets, the Houthis are Iran’s proxy with Tehran exercising meaningful operational control over the Houthis, using them to strike against Saudi Arabia and its interests in Yemen.
There has, however, been no evidence, in the media or otherwise, suggesting the Houthis are indeed Iran’s proxy in technical or practical terms. Iran does not enjoy command and control over the Houthis, and has not played a critical role in shaping Houthi decision-making.
Indeed, several senior Houthi officials have objected to the idea that they are Iran’s proxy. Rather than furthering Iranian interests, the Houthis’ main grievance is against the Hadi government, with demands centering around power sharing and reforms to the country’s constitution.
Other Western media outlets have claimed that religion (Shiism) is the main reason for the alliance between the Houthis and the Iranian government. In reality, however, there are significant theological differences between the Zaydi branch of Shiism, to which the Houthis belong, and the Twelver Shiites of Iran.
Western media outlets have also exaggerated Tehran’s military and financial role in Yemen’s war. Although Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has increased its military and financial assistance to the Houthis since 2014, this has not shifted the balance of power in the Yemen conflict and is nowhere near what Iran spends in Syria and Iraq.
But this doesn’t mean Iran has no involvement in the Yemen conflict. There is a very real geopolitical convergence taking place between the Houthis and Iran, specifically, around a shared desire to oust the Hadi government.
From the Iranian perspective, the region is dominated by the United States and its allies, primarily Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Hadi government is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia, and, as such, its removal is to Iran’s benefit. Though opposed to Hadi for their own reasons, the Houthis are a useful ally for Iran to have.
Balance of Power and Iran-Saudi Rivalry
In formulating Iran’s policy toward Yemen, the main decision-makers include the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the senior cadre of the IRGC. These actors have framed the Iranian narrative on the conflict and enjoy significant control over Iran’s media discourse.
As this discourse demonstrates, Iran has used the Yemen war to advance its regional hegemonic ambitions. The Iranian government views the war in Yemen through the prism of its rivalry with Saudi Arabia. This competition is a complex and multi-layered one, rooted in sectarian (Shia versus Sunni), ethnic (Persian versus Arab), ideological (pro-American versus anti-American), geopolitical, and strategic concerns.
In supporting Hadi’s ouster, Iran hopes to create a legitimate political arrangement in Yemen where the Houthis have a role, as Hezbollah does in Lebanon. This is meant to ensure Iran’s influence in a country that borders its regional competitor, Saudi Arabia.
Iran believes it can exploit its ties with the Houthis and influence in Yemen as leverage against Saudi Arabia and its allies. This leverage can be used by Iran as a strategic bargaining chip in future negotiations and in pressuring Riyadh to change its regional policies. Iran also benefits from having Saudi Arabia bogged down in Sanaa as this takes its attention away from Iraq and Syria, which are Iran’s most important strategic and geopolitical partners.
Iran is, however, also using the conflict to promote certain ideological narratives.
First, Iranian media, as well as other outlets aligned with Iran, have presented the war in Yemen as the struggle of “the oppressed”- that is, the struggle of the Houthis, the Zaydi or Shiite communities, against the oppressors. One of the core revolutionary slogans of the Islamic Republic is that Iran is the supporter and savior of “the oppressed.” As such, Iran’s narrative on Yemen functions very much within this broader ideological framework. Through this narrative, Iran has projected its role in Yemen as limited to humanitarian assistance.
Khamanei has used his speeches and social media presence to emphasize this notion that Iran is supporting the “oppressed.” He stated in May 2015 that “Yemen, Bahrain, and Palestine are oppressed, and we protect oppressed people as much as we can.”
Second, the Iranian government has portrayed the Yemeni conflict as fitting within a concept of the “Islamic awakening,” according to which uprisings across the Arab world follow in the footsteps of the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Notably, Iranian leaders have not deployed a sectarian language on the Yemen conflict, in the press or otherwise. Instead, a more general, sect-neutral Islamic language has been used. For example, the media uses terms such as the oppressed “Muslim” people of Yemen, not the oppressed “Shia.” This approach is the result of the Islamic Republic’s key revolutionary principles, which position Iran’s Supreme Leader as the leader of the “ummah,” the Islamic world, and not solely the leader of Shiites.
Iran’s Media and Narrative
Where the Yemen conflict is concerned, the Islamic Republic has relied mainly on soft power to spread its narrative on the conflict beyond its own borders. Through various satellite TV stations, broadcasting in different languages, including Arabic, English, and Persian, the Iranian government has attempted to shape and influence public opinion in the region.
Some of the more prominent outlets used to spread Iranian propaganda include, Al-Alam (The World), an around the clock news channels in Arabic, Jaam-e Jam international TV channels (in Persian language), the multilingual Sahar TV, the state-run Farsi-language Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting channels (IRIB), the English-language Press TV channel, and the Lebanese channel, Al-Manar, which is operated by Hezbollah but supported by the Iranian government. The Iranian government has also used the radio station, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which is produced in twenty languages, and various newspapers, such as the Tehran Times, which is published in English. These media outlets mainly spread the IRGC and the Supreme Leader’s messages and policies.
While the Iranian government has been relatively successful in utilizing media, particularly in Arabic, to communicate its perspective on and influence the Yemen conflict, Iran has encountered significant limitations in shaping regional opinion on the war. This is particularly true for Sunni audiences.
One of the reasons for Iran’s more limited impact is the Arab media, primarily those outlets controlled or funded by Saudi Arabia. These platforms have been very influential in counterbalancing Iran’s narrative, for several reasons.
First, these outlets have targeted Sunnis who are the majority in the region. Second, Iran’s use of hard power in Syria and Iraq has increased negative sentiments toward it in the Arab world and decreased Iran’s popularity as a constructive actor in the region since the Syrian uprising erupted.
What the Future Should Hold
If Iran and its media continue to view the war in Yemen as a low cost opportunity to advance regional objectives and score a victory against Saudi Arabia, there will be more regional instability in the long-term. This is also not in Iran’s national security interest.
Iranian leaders should use their influence in Yemen and their media as means to negotiate with Saudi Arabia and de-escalate the tension. This will enhance Iran’s regional legitimacy and popularity, specifically among Sunnis. Iran’s media can take the first step by sending a message to the region that Iran is prepared to act as a moderator between Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni opponents to reach a political resolution.