OpinionMiddle East

All the ayatollah’s men

Tehran’s proxies are fighting on many fronts.

Iran-backed Houthis hijack a ship on the Red Sea, Nov. 19, 2023. Credit: Screenshot.
Iran-backed Houthis hijack a ship on the Red Sea, Nov. 19, 2023. Credit: Screenshot.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

Forty-five years ago this month, a revolution was underway in Iran. It was called an Iranian revolution but its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had a more ambitious project in mind: the founding of a new Islamic empire that would project power throughout the Middle East and far beyond.

In 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as “supreme leader” of the misleadingly named the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Like his predecessor, he has repeatedly and relentlessly vowed “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”

And he’s elaborated: “Death to America will happen. In the new order I am talking about America will no longer have any important role.”

The rulers of China and Russia also are determined to expand their empires and establish a new world order, one in which they make the rules, and the United States becomes a hapless has-been. 

So, thinking strategically, Khamenei has forged close relations with the infidel strongmen in Beijing and Moscow.

And he funds, arms and instructs a list of Middle Eastern protégés and proxies.

Among them: Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

On Oct. 7, the two terrorist groups led the invasion into Israel where they carried out the most barbaric attacks on Jews since the Holocaust.

As many as 500 of the invaders had trained in Iran, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

A spokesman for Khamenei called the onslaught “one of the acts of revenge for the assassination of General [Qassem] Soleimani by the U.S. and the Zionists.”

Soleimani, you’ll recall, commanded the Quds Force, a division of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Syria and many others elsewhere.

Jan. 3 is the fourth anniversary of the drone strike, ordered by President Trump, that killed Soleimani.

There were, of course, other motivations for the 10/7 atrocities. The Hamas Charter of 1988 declares: “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious.”

Meanwhile, since 2021, Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias loyal to Tehran have launched more than 150 attacks against American outposts in Iraq and Syria.

American reprisals have been restrained, though last weekend U.S. airstrikes reportedly targeted nine sites, killing more than a dozen fighters.

Starting on Oct. 8, Hezbollah, Tehran’s Lebanon-based foreign legion, has fired more than a thousand rockets into northern Israel, forcing communities in that part of the country to evacuate.

And from Yemen, since Nov. 19 the Houthis have used Iranian-supplied missiles and drones to attack 23 commercial vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and therefore one of the world’s most economically important waterways.

The Houthis also hijacked a Japanese-operated cargo ship. The vessel and its crew are now reportedly being held in the Yemeni port city of Hodeida.

Iranian naval ships in the area have reportedly been passing intelligence to the Houthis to facilitate targeting.

And, according to the Pentagon, last month a drone launched directly from Iranian territory struck a Japanese-owned chemical tanker 200 miles off the Indian coast.

In response to these aggressions, the Pentagon has organized “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” a multinational naval force that has been shooting down Houthi missiles and, on Sunday, sank three small boats carrying militants who fired on American helicopters attempting to stop them from hijacking a Danish-owned container ship.

A little about the Houthis: They call themselves Ansar Allah, meaning Supporters of God. A Shi’ite military and political organization, their theology is consistent with Tehran’s and succinctly expressed in their slogan: “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory to Islam.”

For a decade, they have been waging a civil war against the government of Sunni-majority Yemen, a conflict in which more than 150,000 people have been killed. A ceasefire between the rebels and the government has been in effect since 2022.

Just before leaving office, President Trump designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.

Just after taking office, President Biden removed the Houthis from that blacklist. He also froze weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which had been leading an Arab coalition supporting the Yemeni government.

The Houthis expressed no gratitude.

Why are the Houthis and their patrons in Tehran attempting to rule the waves adjacent to Yemen?

I think they hope to demonstrate that the United States is a “weak horse,” frightened and feckless, unwilling even to acknowledge that most of the conflicts in the Middle East have roots in Tehran and incapable of containing Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

If “Operation Prosperity Guardian” fails to silence Houthi guns, President Biden will face a choice: Capitulate or escalate.

The latter would mean at least directing the Pentagon to eliminate Houthi weapons warehouses, the vessels and helicopters used for hijackings and perhaps command-and-control centers.

But such a response would be only tactical. A strategic approach would focus less on the puppets and more on those pulling the strings of the Houthis—along with the strings of Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Shi’ite militias.

On Monday, an Iranian warship passed through the Bab el-Mandeb into the Red Sea. And in recent days, Iran’s rulers have increased their production of enriched uranium. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, they may now have enough to produce three nuclear bombs.

A nuclear-armed regime in Tehran would be more difficult to contain and deter—and a more valuable partner for Beijing and Moscow.

President Biden, like his predecessors in the White House, has said that for Tehran’s jihadis to possess nukes would be “unacceptable.”

Khamenei, who will be 85 in April, may think it’s time to find out whether that’s a bluff. Expect an eventful New Year.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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