Several years ago, if someone had not heard of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it would not have been a major surprise. The idea that the US might one day be sending a team to negotiate with them would have appeared ludicrous.
At the time, beginning in 2015, a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was supposed to push back the rag-tag fighters by using the best Western military equipment.
Today, that has all changed. With Iranian technology and support, the Houthis are raining down ballistic missiles and kamikaze drones on Saudi Arabia almost every day.
The new US Biden administration sought to take the group off a terrorist list which the Trump administration had tacked them onto during its last days in office.
But the Houthis took the signal as evidence that they had Washington's ear. Push a little bit more on Saudi Arabia, they reasoned, and they might launch themselves to be one of the important forces in the region.
Iran has a habit of turning groups like the Houthis, Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq into terrorist armies that seem to sponge up most of the country around them. Hezbollah now has a state attached to it which is called Lebanon. The Houthis seem to have a smaller state attached to them which is called Yemen. And in Iraq the likes of Hadi al-Amiri and the Badr Organization seem to have sponged up much of what is known as "Iraq" – which Iran increasingly sees as its near abroad.
The Houthi quest for regional power can be seen in how Iran's state media boost them.
"Yemeni ballistic missiles haunt Saudi Arabia, senior Ansarullah official says," according to Iran's Press TV. According to Tasnim News Agency in Iran, "Mohammad Abdul Salam," the spokesman of the Yemeni Ansarullah movement – which is the Houthis – tweeted the question: "Why don't the Americans send practical messages of peace instead of sending a threatening message [against the Yemeni people]?" ...
"We tell the Americans that as long as you say you can send a message to the Houthis, then why not send practical peace messages instead of threatening messages," Abdul Salam, who also chairs the Sanaa delegation to the Yemeni peace talks, told US officials this week.
Iran's media and its regime are very good at reading US intentions. So are the Houthis, who apparently gain from Iran's long years of diplomatic intelligence work.
"The Pentagon has confirmed that US President Joe Biden has set new rules on how the US military and intelligence services can conduct drone strikes and commando raids in foreign lands, restoring the kind of control over the decision-making process that former president Donald Trump scrapped," Press News said.
The real headline is that Iran thinks the US is much more restrained today. It was a drone that killed IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani in 2020. No more strikes like that, Iran thinks.
On the Saudi front, the concern over Riyadh's eroding allies in the West and threats from the Houthis have brought out a cavalcade of visits to the kingdom's capital. Jordan's king and Bahrain's crown prince went to Saudi Arabia this week. Malaysia's prime minister came as well.
"King Abdullah arrived earlier on Monday, where he was received by the crown prince at King Khalid International Airport, along with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Khaled Al-Issa, minister of state and member of the Council of Ministers," noted Arab News. Riyadh may even be increasing relations with Qatar and Turkey. It appears that Qatar has been very critical of the Houthi attacks recently.
Saudi Arabia is sending a message that it is a major leader in the region and the Islamic world. Iran is sending a message via the Houthis that it can continue to strike at Saudi Arabia.
Tehran wants to exploit that, to bring the US to the table for more "Iran deal" talks. Iran also wants a foothold in Yemen that may threaten Israel. In the past, reports have hinted at drones based in Yemen with a 2,000-km. range that can reach the Jewish state. An Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman was likely part of that message.
Iran wants to show it can reach around Yemen to make larger threats. It may have lost out on using Sudan and other areas to traffic weapons, but it is still strong in some areas.
The wider story is how the Houthis have been able to threaten the region, and how they may be used as leverage in future talks. They are signaling that they want direct and public talks with Washington.
The Houthis may be hoping to achieve Taliban-level respectability.
They don't have far to look for a model. The Taliban, once on the ropes in the early 2000s, is getting sit-downs with the US in recent years and is eyeing itself as a coequal power in Afghanistan. It got there through Iran, Qatar and Russia and other relationships.
The Houthis may think that, given time, they will reach Taliban-level respectability. No one would have imagined such a thing for the Taliban years ago, or the Houthis today.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.