John Sayer

The outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7th 2023 has led to tensions in the Middle East skyrocketing. With conflict escalating in the region, the role of Iran and its relationship to militant groups operating throughout the region have become a new area of focus. For decades, Iran has been the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism globally, funding and directing multiple militant groups and their activities. Their network of proxies throughout the Middle East allows them to push their ideology and expand their regional authority against opposing actors. Understanding the nature of the relationships between Iran and these proxy groups is essential to maintaining a holistic understanding of these events. Specifically, the Houthi movement in Yemen has garnered increased global attention due to their current attacks against commercial and military ships in the Red Sea. This paper will provide an analysis of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ and the ties the nation maintains with its various proxy groups. Specifically, it will place focus on the Houthi organization, their complex relationship with Iran, their connection to the Israel-Palestine Conflict, and how they compare to other Iranian-backed proxy groups operating in the Middle East.

Put plainly, the purpose of Iran’s Axis of Resistance network is to propagate Iranian cultural beliefs and support, expand their regional power, and diminish the capabilities of Western states operating in the Middle East. On a fundamental level, using regional proxies allows Iran maneuverability to accomplish their goals without using their own military resources, while also being able to maintain plausible deniability. This has been imperative for the state since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and has been spearheaded by the Quds Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (The Economist). Their efforts have resulted in Iranian-backed militant groups operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party which has control over vast swathes of Shiite-majority areas of Lebanon, has received hundreds of millions of dollars yearly from Iran for decades (Council on Foreign Relations 1). Hezbollah is arguably the strongest of these Tehran-backed groups and most important to its regional strategy, as their relationship gives Iran an allied presence on Israel’s border while Hezbollah has grown into a dominant military and political force in Lebanon (The Conversation 1). Two of the most dominant militias currently active in Syria are the Shiite Zaynabiyoun Brigade and the Fatemiyoun Division, groups which were developed by the  Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Quds Force, and who have seen significant combat after being deployed by Iran to fight alongside the Assad regime (Wilson Center 1). Both of these groups provide Tehran with regional allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively. It’s important to note that the relationships between Iran and these militant groups are unique in their own ways, prone to fluctuation in support and goals. Tehran and the IRGC have navigated the specific geopolitical realities of its neighboring states in order to provide support for these groups, while still being able to align their goals with Iran’s own. Analyzing the Houthi movement in Yemen provides a clear example of the way these relationships are prone to evolution.

It’s important to note the history, structure, and ultimate goals of the Houthis in Yemen.

They’re a fundamentalist Shiite movement (specifically a Zaydi subsection of Islam) founded in the early 1990’s which has been in direct conflict with Yemen’s Sunni controlled majority government since the early 2000’s, with both sides being actively engaged in a civil war since 2014 after the Houthis’ takeover of the nation’s capital (Wilson Center 2). Saudi Arabia, which has longstanding ties with the Yemeni government and whose influence in Yemen has long been a major grievance of the Houthi movement, entered into the conflict the following year along with coalition forces from the United Arab Emirates (Council on Foreign Relations 2). Conflict between the Houthis and Yemeni government and Saudi-led forces have carried on in the years since the outbreak of the war, resulting in a massive humanitarian crisis and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. 2023 marked an improvement in the lowering of conflict through peace talks, but the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war has seen tensions ratcheting up (Wilson Center 3). Specifically, this has resulted in more aggressive attacks from the Houthis against the United States and Israel, which coincide with Iran’s regional goals.

While the Houthi movement and Iran have historically shared similar negative sentiments regarding Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, their relationship has strengthened due to the outbreak of war in Yemen and the intervention of Saudi Arabia into the country (Press Herald). Tehran saw the Houthis as a potential ally in their efforts to diminish Saudi authority, while the militia group itself viewed Iran as a powerful benefactor which could assist them in the fight against the Yemeni government. Since 2015, they have been supplied with advanced weapons, technology, and munitions, while also receiving foundational training and military assistance that has helped the Houthis grow in terms of strength and capability (War on the Rocks). Compared to the other strategic alliances Tehran maintains with other groups, however, the Houthi movement is unique in its independence. The main aspects which differentiate the Houthis from Iranian proxies is that of financial independence, their focus on local operations, their doctrine of Zaidism, and the agency of their leadership structure and political autonomy (ISPI). The Houthis’ focus on local issues, regarding income streams and political autonomy, positioning them away from a more direct level of Iranian control (The Conversation 2). The strengthened relationship between the Houthis and Tehran has occurred during times of war and conflict, and whether that relationship will maintain stability through the operations of Houthi leadership during times of peace remains to be seen (ISPI 2).

Immediately after the October 7th attack in Israel, the Houthis publicly declared their support for the Hamas organization. Soon afterwards, they began launching missile, drone, and water-based attacks against both commercial freighters and military vessels in the Red Sea (AP News 1). The sea and Suez Canal are integral to global trade; around 30% of global container shipping passes through the Suez Canal, while around 15% of global trade as a whole passes through the Red Sea (Forbes). The attacks from the Houthis have led a large number shipping companies to reroute and instead travel around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, a longer and more expensive trip for ships to make (Politico). The Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea have leveled a direct blow to global trade, negatively affecting the global economy and positioning the militant group into the spotlight of the world media. Dozens of these attacks have been leveled against freighters with US and European links. The first fatalities from the Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea occurred on March 6th, as three crew members aboard a Liberian-owned commercial vessel were killed during a missile strike (AP News 2). In response to these attacks, the United States and fellow coalition members have launched numerous missile and drone strikes against Houthi forces operating in Yemen (Al Jazeera). These joint airstrikes have resulted in the destruction of Houthi drones, missile sites, weapon storage facilities, key infrastructure, armor and air defense systems, and more (CBS News). On March 9th, the largest Houthi attack in the Red Sea occurred when nearly 40 drones attacked commercial ships and vessels led by US and EU coalitions; US Central Command confirmed the following morning that nearly all the drones were struck down (The National).  These attacks have been effective in diminishing the fighting capabilities of the Houthis, but the support from Iran allows them to maintain comfort in spite of these strikes.

The retaliative attacks from the United States seem to lessen Houthi strikes against American forces for a short period, but the armed group shows no intent to ramp down their attacks as the conflict in Gaza carries on. It remains to be seen whether this will continue to escalate and branch out into a wider conflict (The New York Times). It is undeniable, however, that the Houthi movement will remain a key factor in Iran’s network of regional alliances. As the war in Gaza continues, only time will tell how these relationships evolve or devolve.



Al Jazeera:

AP News:

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CBS News:

Council on Foreign Relations:

Council on Foreign Relations.




Press Herald:

The Conversation:

The Economist:

The National:

The New York Times:

War on the Rocks:

Wilson Center:

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Posted March 27, 2024