The Islamic Republic of Iran has been rocked by major street protests since September. As these show no sign of slowing down, there are growing questions about the future of the regime. Four broad scenarios appear possible: the regime succeeds in quelling the demonstrations and the country returns to the pre-September status quo; the regime quells the protests but emerges as much more vulnerable than before; an internal coup d’état; or the fall of the regime.
The situation is fluid and could change fast; if anything, analysts have a poor history in forecasting the survival of authoritarian regimes, which suggests that predictions should be made with a dose of humility. That said, it seems that the most likely scenario in the short to medium term is the second one: the regime survives but not unscathed. It is difficult to imagine a return to the pre-September status quo: opposition to the regime has deepened and broadened, with protests reaching beyond the urban middle class and into poorer and traditionally more pro-regime neighborhoods and cities. Protesters are not demanding reform, as they had in past demonstrations; instead, they are now calling for the overthrow of the regime. At the same time, the system is not on the verge of collapse. Indicators that would suggest this outcome – the refusal of security forces to obey orders, large-scale defections at the upper echelons of the regime, generalized strikes – have not materialized so far.
What does the prospect of the survival of a weakened Islamic Republic mean for its foreign policy, both in general and specifically in Yemen?
In general, Iran’s approach to foreign policy is premised on the notion of forward defense. The Islamic Republic builds relationships with non-state armed groups throughout the region and provides them with weapons, cash, technical assistance, and intelligence. Iran can then threaten, implicitly or explicitly, that its allies will target the United States and its regional partners – especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – should they attack Iran or its partners. When the UAE-backed Giants Brigade forces were accumulating military successes against the Houthis in early 2022, the Houthis responded with missile and drone strikes against the UAE, pressuring Abu Dhabi to order the Giants Brigades to halt their advance in southern Marib.
The intent, for Iran, is to project insecurity outwards; concretely, this means that Tehran’s foreign policy is partly geared toward ensuring regime security. With the Islamic Republic increasingly vulnerable domestically, we can expect it to double down on its usual tactics in the coming weeks and months: faced with a perceived threat or provocation, its threshold for retaliation risks becoming lower, while the amount of force it employs could become stronger.
The effects of such a turn could be particularly impactful in Yemen. Ties between Iran and the Houthis predate the launch of the Saudi-led intervention, but it was really after 2015 that they expanded. In addition to small arms and ammunition, Iran now provides the Houthis with parts for more lethal systems including increasingly sophisticated drones and missiles, which can now reach the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This support has been a very good investment for Iran: for an annual sum perhaps in the low hundreds of millions of dollars, Iran has built a strong foothold in Yemen and bogged down its Saudi rival in a costly quagmire. Even though the precise dynamics of Houthi-Iran ties remain poorly understood, it does not appear that Tehran gives direct orders to its Yemeni partner; rather, the two sides consult extensively and, given that they share a similar view on regional politics, more often than not their interests align.
The foundations of the Iran-Houthi partnership will remain stable even as the Islamic Republic becomes increasingly vulnerable domestically. What will evolve is how these dynamics play out in practice. This could manifest itself in the Houthis’ and Iran’s approach to the truce. The Houthis benefitted from the truce, which lasted from April to October 2022. They likely had no intention to seriously negotiate, but instead used the respite to consolidate, regroup, and rest after losses in early 2022. During that time, they watched gleefully as anti-Houthi forces failed to form a more united front. The Houthis and Iran waited patiently, as they believed – rightly – that their position relative to that of the internationally-recognized government was bound to improve over time. From Iran’s perspective, moreover, the continuation of the war means the continued bleeding of Saudi Arabia.
This broad Iranian calculus still stands. But as the Islamic Republic’s domestic position becomes increasingly vulnerable, it will be even less willing to support any Houthi compromise in peace talks. It will increase its support for what are already maximalist Houthi demands and oppose concessions that would allow Saudi Arabia to cut its losses. In other words, Tehran will want to make sure that as long as it suffers domestically, so does Saudi Arabia. Iran may be even keener to encourage the Houthis to retaliate against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, should Tehran perceive that they are pushing too hard against the Islamic Republic. If its threshold to push back against regional rivals is lower, there is a greater likelihood that Iran will support action against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to prevent them from benefiting from its troubles.
Another important question to ask concerns the Houthis’ approach to Israel. By some estimates, Houthi drones and missiles cannot quite reach Israel yet; based on incomplete open-source information, their maximum range is perhaps 1,500 km, about 300 km short of reaching the southern tip of Israel. Given the combination of the Islamic Republic’s domestic troubles and the Houthis’ growing confidence to act outside Yemen’s borders, the probability of Iran transferring the technology and parts necessary for the Houthis to increase their reach to the point of being able to reach Israel is likely increasing.
Overall, the internationally recognized government of Yemen does not have sufficient power to defeat the Houthis; there is no prospect of the group losing its tight control over Sana’a and northwest Yemen for the foreseeable future. Houthi-controlled Yemen, however, has no prospect of international recognition or economic growth; it is bound to remain a poor, de facto statelet under repressive Houthi rule. This status quo suits a vulnerable Iran: it keeps the Houthis dependent on its external patron, while Houthi territory remains a base from which Tehran can project power on the Arabian Peninsula. This was the calculus for the Islamic Republic before the protests escalated in September; as the regime’s vulnerability grows, the Houthis will become an even more valuable asset in the regime’s efforts to assure its survival and counter pressure from adversaries.