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From Yemen to Palestine: The strategic depth of the Houthi-Iranian alliance

On Jan. 18, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of Yemen’s Houthi movement, gave a televised sermon on the Iran-backed militia group’s television channel. It was just the latest in a series of public appearances, this one aimed at addressing the coordinated US-UK airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen and the Biden administration’s labeling of the militia as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization. The Houthi leader, who condemned the designation, cloaked his reaction in a veil of defiance: “This step comes only in the context of protecting Zionist criminality, its attacks, raids, classifications, and has no significance [for the Houthi movement],” adding, “This aggression will not change our position and our belief in supporting the Palestinian people, the people of Gaza, and the targeting of ships heading to Israel.”

Al-Houthi’s sermon, which was almost entirely focused on Palestine, underscored the militia’s strategic alliance with Tehran as part of the “Axis of Resistance,” which has emboldened its stance on regional issues. This relationship, central to understanding the Houthi movement's actions and narratives, frames its position within the larger geopolitical contest in the Middle East. Rather than speaking about the international response to the Houthi attacks on shipping, al-Houthi emphasized broader grievances about the Arab-Israeli conflict with a particular focus on the enduring alliance between the United States and Israel. He implicated this relationship in the suffering of the Palestinians, claiming that “it is the US, aiding Israel in its atrocities," drawing on a history of resentment and distrust in the region.

Houthis protest against airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on Sanaa in September 2015.

The Houthis, adept at the art of deflecting, have long sought to tap into the sentiments and grievances of the local population in Yemen. They are now seeking to do the same across the broader Arab world, leveraging the widespread support for Palestinians in Gaza and anger at Israel and the US. They have intensified their attacks in the Red Sea to halt maritime traffic heading for Israel, intervening directly in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The narrative spun by al-Houthi seems to be less about the Houthi cause and more about the plight of the Palestinians, a topic that has increasingly monopolized the discourse in the group’s media channels. On the Houthi-owned outlet al-Maseera’s website and newspapers, the Palestinian issue is omnipresent, overshadowing more immediate domestic concerns and conflicts. The Houthis have also used this new narrative to attack local adversaries, like Rashad al-Alimi, head of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), branding them as Zionists or Western collaborators.

Al-Houthi’s speeches often instrumentalize pathos to connect with the audience. By employing emotionally charged language and vivid imagery, they evoke strong feelings of solidarity, defiance, and a sense of collective struggle. A common theme in his rhetoric is to portray the Houthis as fighting against oppression, and he often uses phrases like “standing against injustice” or “defending the downtrodden” to stir emotions of empathy, anger, and a sense of duty among listeners.

Houthi leaders have a keen understanding of themes and issues that resonate across the Arab world, of historical wounds and battles, and of the international human rights discourse opposing the harm of civilians. They strategically utilize these larger themes and narratives to frame their local struggle in a way that resonates with wider regional and global audiences, seeking to garner sympathy and support for their movement from beyond Yemen’s borders. However, their primary aim remains centered on advancing their own political and military objectives within Yemen, rather than genuinely championing the broader Arab causes they invoke.

Houthi defiance and regional ambitions

Using broader regional issues to mobilize support is a well-documented strategy in Middle Eastern conflicts. For instance, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein frequently invoked the Palestinian struggle in his rhetoric, seeking to position himself as a defender of Palestinian rights. This was perhaps most notable during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when he attacked Israel with Scud missiles — a move widely seen as an attempt to gain Arab support by associating his regime with a cause that resonated deeply across the Arab world.

Similarly, al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden also used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to justify his actions and garner support. Bin Laden frequently criticized the United States for backing Israel and cited the suffering of Palestinians as a grievance motivating his call to arms. This was not so much about genuine advocacy for the Palestinian cause but rather an attempt to exploit a deeply entrenched and emotionally resonant issue to rally support for al-Qaeda’s broader objectives.

In a similar vein, the leader of the Houthi movement is tapping into widespread grievances around the Arab-Israeli conflict and the US-Israel alliance, implicating it in the suffering of the Palestinians. Such strategic framing serves multiple purposes: It legitimizes the Houthis’ actions in the eyes of those who sympathize with the Palestinian cause, distracts from the more immediate issues associated with the Yemen conflict and the failures of Houthi governance, and potentially broadens the base of their support beyond Yemen’s borders.

Messaging and impact

The Houthi slogan, “Death to America, death to Israel, curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam,” encapsulates their ideology and long-standing preparation for a broader conflict with Western powers, and they have seized on the current geopolitical tensions as an opportune moment to escalate their campaign. This motto serves not only as a rallying cry but also as a declaration of their intentions and objectives, aligning them with a wider anti-Western sentiment that transcends Yemen’s borders, and framing their struggle within a larger narrative of resistance against external domination.

In their messaging, the Houthis effectively establish their ethos, or credibility, by portraying themselves as defenders of specific values and people. They often describe themselves as the guardians of Yemeni sovereignty and champions of the marginalized by using references to historical and religious symbols, aligning their cause with revered figures and events. By doing so, they not only assert their authority but also establish a moral high ground, appealing to the audience’s sense of righteousness and justice.

The Houthi leader has also called on his supporters in the US and Europe to intensify their social media campaigns to protest the airstrikes against Yemen, which are, in fact, on Houthi military targets. This appeal is a strategic move to broaden support under a humanitarian guise — an attempt to mask their deeper war-driven agenda with a veneer of advocacy for peace.

The impact of this rhetoric on the Yemeni population is multifaceted. On the one hand, it can foster a sense of loyalty and duty, especially among those who feel marginalized or oppressed. The emotional and moral appeal in Houthi speeches may resonate with the struggles of the average Yemeni person, creating a sense of unity and purpose. Indeed, the Houthis’ rhetoric and actions in attacking vessels in the Red Sea have even resonated with some of their staunch opponents. Internationally, they have also given rise to criticism of Western nations for prioritizing economic interests over human lives in responding to the conflicts in Yemen and Gaza, putting the protection of commercial shipping routes ahead of managing the humanitarian crises.

On the other hand, the Houthi rhetoric can also instill fear among the local Yemeni population, particularly by shaping perceptions of external threats and enemies. This fear can be a powerful motivator, rallying support and justifying the Houthis’ actions and policies. The emotionally charged nature of Houthi speeches plays a significant role in their recruitment campaigns, particularly in regions like Hodeidah, close to the Red Sea, where the Houthis are launching their attacks. By portraying their struggle as a righteous defense against external threats and oppression, they are appealing to the local population’s sense of duty and resilience and justifying measures like forcible recruitment, including of children.

Moreover, the Houthis are strategically focusing their criticism on Yemen’s government and the PLC, questioning the legitimacy of their engagements with international actors, which they argue reflect a subservience to foreign interests, notably Israel and the United States. This tactic forms a core part of their wider propaganda efforts, aimed at portraying the Yemeni government and its leadership as betraying national and Arab causes, particularly regarding Palestine. By depicting Alimi and his associates as collaborators with “Zionist and Western aggressors,” the Houthis are trying to position themselves as the authentic defenders of Yemeni sovereignty and the Palestinian cause. This strategy seeks to erode the legitimacy of the Yemeni government among Yemenis, who feel that it has failed to address their core issues and abandoned them to the Houthis.

Alignment with the Islamic Republic of Iran

When it comes to solidarity with Palestine and enmity against Israel, the Houthi movement is very much in alignment with Iran. Iranian leaders have long been vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause and opponents of Israeli policies and actions in the region. This stance is a cornerstone of Iranian foreign policy, reflecting a deep ideological and strategic commitment that resonates with the Houthis’ own position.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called Palestine “the main index of Muslim unity,” attacking Arab governments that are “normalizing relations with the usurping, despotic Zionist regime,” and famously predicted Israel’s demise by 2040. Furthermore, Iranian officials have frequently underscored their support for what they term “resistance groups”— or what is more commonly referred to as the Axis of Resistance — including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which aligns with their broader strategy of opposing US and Israeli influence in the Middle East. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, in discussions about regional security, has praised these groups, stating that “Today, resistance has become a power,” referring to the various Iranian proxies in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen that comprise the Axis of Resistance.

The Houthi-Iran relationship, while offering strategic and military advantages to the Houthis, predominantly serves Iran’s broader regional ambitions. Iran’s backing positions the Houthis within its Axis of Resistance against Western and Israeli interests, which could lead the Houthis to become embroiled in far-flung conflicts, draining resources and focus from their main objectives in Yemen. The Iran-Houthi alignment, which has attracted growing international scrutiny and further isolated the Houthis, complicated their position and interests in the long run.

In the face of growing international pressure, the Houthis are likely to continue to employ a strategy they have mastered over the years: buying more time while doubling down on unattainable demands. This approach aligns with their historical tactic of using conflict as an opportunity to consolidate and expand their influence. This suggests that the Houthis’ primary aim is to further their own interests, ensure their survival, and extend their control. While outward appearances suggest indifference to external pressure, it is likely that the Houthis are actively navigating a complex interplay of geopolitical realities and perceptions, shaping their responses and strategies in light of the evolving international landscape.

Global implications

The Houthis’ influence on regional and international politics underscores the urgent need to effectively address the challenges they present. Their ability to disrupt global shipping routes and energy markets, particularly through attacks on maritime traffic in the Red Sea, has forced companies to reroute traffic, raised shipping costs, and led to a significant drop in freight volume. The international community must adopt a vigilant approach toward the group, scrutinizing their propaganda and strategic shifts with a critical eye. The Houthis’ ability to sway both local and international opinion through a mix of victimhood and defiance requires a cautious and informed response. Such vigilance helps in avoiding simplistic interpretations and ensures a deeper understanding of their impact on regional stability and humanitarian conditions.

While Arab nations navigate the delicate balance of diplomacy, cautious about escalating tensions, the Houthis, bolstered by Iranian support, position themselves as the singular force ready to confront Israel's actions in Gaza through direct action. They view this struggle as an integral and legitimate extension of their resistance, where confronting the state of Israel aligns with their efforts to assert regional autonomy and challenge external influences, underscoring their narrative of defiance against perceived global injustices.

The bond between the Houthis and Iran has grown deep, entwining their fates and regional ambitions. In this understanding lies the key to crafting strategies that are both realistic and grounded, aiming for peace in a landscape where the Houthi-Iran axis is an undeniable presence. As such, a balanced stance toward the Houthis is essential, recognizing the complexity of their involvement in Yemen’s conflict and the broader geopolitical implications. This approach should neither underestimate their influence nor respond in a manner that could escalate tensions unnecessarily. While it is essential to scrutinize the factors that might drive support for the Houthis — mainly by taking the lead in protecting against the catastrophic loss of human life in Gaza — it is also critical to hold Iran and the Houthis accountable for contributing to the conflict and suffering in Yemen.

To this end, greater action should be taken to empower local actors who are committed to a peaceful resolution in Yemen and the region. This involves providing support for inclusive dialogue processes and strengthening the capacity of local governance structures. By enhancing the legitimacy and efficacy of local actors opposed to the Houthis’ violent methods, the international community can help create a more favorable environment for a political solution. Additionally, addressing legitimate grievances among the Yemeni population — such as economic hardship, political disenfranchisement, and lack of access to basic services — can reduce the appeal of the Houthis’ narrative and undermine their support base. This dual approach of security measures and political empowerment offers a pathway to gradually contain the Houthis’ influence while laying the groundwork for long-term stability in Yemen and the region.


Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.


Ali Zifan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry Ridgwell (VOA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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