The United States may soon classify the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, in part because of their ties to Iran. Their leader, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, 41, expresses defiance in an interview with DER SPIEGEL, arguing Washington should settle its score with Iran, not Yemen.
Interview Conducted By Susanne Koelbl
The war has been raging in Yemen for five years now, and an increasing number of regional and international actors have become embroiled in the conflict. At the center of the struggle are the Shiite Houthis, a Yemeni militia backed by Iran. The Houthis don’t recognize the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, where he is provided with protection by the hegomonic Sunni power. Saudi Arabia has forged an anti-Houthi alliance and imposed an air and sea blockade over Yemen, making the import of weapons and goods nearly impossible.
The United Nations has estimated that more than 200,000 people have died in the brutal proxy war – either directly from the fighting or from consequences such as disease and starvation. Some 24 million Yemenis are now dependent on food rations from aid organizations. The country’s infrastructure and cultural assets have been destroyed in many places. Meanwhile, the United States-backed anti-Houthi coalition still hasn’t achieved any notable successes.
Finding a solution grows more complicated the longer the conflict lasts. Most recently, rival groups within the camp of exiled President Hadi fought against each other. The Houthi rebels still control the capital Sanaa, and Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, 41, belongs to the Supreme Political Council in Sana’a and is one of the most powerful senior leaders in the Houthi-controlled areas.
DER SPIEGEL: You carry an impressive dagger in your belt. Is it a piece of jewelry or a weapon?
Houthi: That is the traditional dress of the Yemenites. It’s what we prefer to wear. The elegant suits we see on visitors or politicians on television don’t make anyone an honorable person.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of being caught in the crosshairs of the United States, like General Qassim Soleimani, who commanded the Iranian Quds Force and the Americans killed with a drone in January?
Houthi: First of all, I’m not a military man. Second, it would not be a surprise if the U.S. targeted me like they had targeted President Saleh al-Samad and had targeted thousands of civilian Yemenis. It would not be surprising if the Americans targeted me. But with each new crime, the anger against the United States of America here is growing.
DER SPIEGEL: Why the U.S.? After all, it is a Saudi Arabian-led coalition you are fighting against.
Houthi: Saudi Arabia operates on the Arabian Peninsula like an American state subordinate to Trump. The president names the price that Saudis pay, the U.S. delivers.
DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. is apparently considering classifying the Houthi militia as a “global terrorist organization,” a step that would please Saudi officials in Riyadh. But it would also be a direct declaration of war by Washington on your self-proclaimed government in Sanaa. What is your defense strategy?
Houthi: We are not a terrorist group and, basically, we do not recognize this term. The Americans label anyone who opposes their policy as terrorists. Even the demonstrators on the streets in the U.S. have been labeled as terrorists by Trump. I ask myself, of course, why is this happening now? Which red line did we just cross?
DER SPIEGEL: Western intelligence services report that the Houthi rebels are increasingly using Iranian missiles and drones.
Houthi: Why are Saudi Arabia and the U.S. waging war against us? On the grounds that we are getting some support from Iran? If we are financed by Iran, please bomb Iran, the financier, don’t massacre Yemenis! That is precisely what we have told the Saudis and the Americans. “If you have a score to settle with the Iranians, settle it with the Iranians.”
DER SPIEGEL: Saudi Arabia is waging war in Yemen to bring the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi back to Sanaa. The goal is to build pressure against Iran, which is expanding its influence in your country and the region. The message to you is clear: Keep your distance from Iran. Are you reconsidering your alliance with Tehran?
Houthi: Will Iran’s influence in the region decrease if Yemenis are bombed? Will that lead to the end of Iran’s nuclear program? Or an end to long-range missiles? No!
DER SPIEGEL: How significant is your association with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for your struggle?
Houthi: I have no connections, and I have never been to Iran as rumored. We don’t have any of the highly developed, tactical weapons of which the secret services speak. Our weapons systems are outdated and date back to World War II. Many countries laugh at our obsolete arsenal.
DER SPIEGEL: A year ago, this sounded very different. You were making a big deal of your allegedly highly developed capabilities and that you could allegedly — without Iranian help — destroy 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production with high-tech drones and missiles.
Houthi: (laughs) We have a lot of experience and many talents. We are under attack in Yemen and we are forced to defend ourselves, with our limited capabilities.
DER SPIEGEL: Saudi Arabia feels increasingly surrounded by governments that are influenced by or controlled from Tehran. That is true in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and also Yemen. Can you understand that Riyadh will not tolerate another ally of Iran on its border?
Houthi: Saudi Arabia is not our mother, whom we have to respect and follow. Whether Saudi Arabia recognizes us or not is not important for us. What is important for us is the recognition of the Yemeni people.
DER SPIEGEL: As a terrorist organization, nobody will be permitted to support you any longer, members of the Houthi government would be banned from traveling to the U.S. and your assets would be frozen. It would also be more difficult to get urgently needed aid into the country.
Houthi: Sanctions have already been imposed by the United Nations on individual high-ranking members of the Yemeni government, and we are protesting against them. Nevertheless, these are only details. You are forgetting the great crime against our country. The UN Security Council didn’t permit anyone to wage this destructive war against Yemen!
DER SPIEGEL: There have been negotiations between the warring parties. Nevertheless, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffith currently sees no prospects of peace. Why are the peace talks failing?
Houthi: We are the ones who propose peace initiatives. We are prepared to observe the cease-fire on all fronts and to stop missile and drone attacks. We want dialogue and a comprehensive solution. But in return, we want the blockade against the Yemeni people to be lifted and the aggression to stop.
DER SPIEGEL: Sanaa is booming. The supermarkets in the capital are full, while 24 million people throughout the country are threatened by hunger. How does this all fit together?
Houthi: We don’t live on goat’s milk. We have businessmen, and there were businessmen even before the war and their names are listed in the chambers of commerce in all the provinces. And the security in the capital, Sanaa, and our non-occupied areas, attracts investors. Likewise, the presence of a national government made the price of the dollar in Sanaa equal to 600 riyals, while in the areas controlled by the coalition it is at 850 riyals to one dollar.
DER SPIEGEL: The situation is becoming increasingly complicated, and the war economy and smuggling have made many warlords incredibly rich, including leading Houthi rebels. Political observers in the country claim that you, too, are not interested in a peace agreement.
Houthi: That is not true! We accepted the efforts of Martin Griffiths and asked him to convince the other side. But the so-called aggression alliance against Yemen rejects the joint declaration.
DER SPIEGEL: The UN has already had to cut food rations for the needy in half because its coffers are empty. The UN says that even these rations will be unaffordable in the future. So, what are you planning to do about hunger in the areas you control?
Houthi: The air and sea blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia makes it impossible for us to supply our people through imports and trade. The UN has repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia to honor its earlier aid commitments. But they are no longer paying. They use humanitarian aid as a weapon against our people. At the recent donor conference, more money came to Yemen from Britain and Sweden than from Riyadh.