“The message we wanted to send to the Emirates arrived,” declared Yahya Saria, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, after the unusual drone attack in the heart of Abu Dhabi early last week. But the attack’s main message should be to the U.S. administration.
“Storm of Yemen” is the name the Houthis gave to the attack, which they described as a “quality military action in the heart of the United Arab Emirates.” The attack was aimed at two targets: the first, the Mussafah industrial zone next to the port, which is home to oil facilities. The attack set fire to three oil tanks located near warehouses of the national ADNOC oil company. The second target was Abu Dhabi International Airport, where a fire broke out at a construction site, killing three foreign laborers from India and Pakistan and wounding six.
The Houthi spokesman, who claimed the attack, warned that it was “just the beginning” and recommended that foreign companies operating in the United Arab Emirates keep away from key sites.
Combined drone and missile attacks in our region are hallmarks of Iranian involvement. In the past two years, other attacks bearing these same characteristics have been carried out against targets in the Arabian Sea, against American military bases in Iraq and southern Syria, in the fighting in Yemen, and against other targets. In all these instances, it is possible to point to intervention by Iran or the forces it supports.
By building up this capability, forces loyal to Iran in various areas are upgrading their abilities, and Iran’s. Beyond this, it allows Tehran to decide the extent of its involvement in each action and how much responsibility for a given attack will be attributed to it, thereby managing the risk involved.
The attack early last week is another example of this. “The Houthis don’t need help from Iran or any other country,” foreign reporters were told by “senior Iranian officials,” who virtually complained about Iran being dragged into another episode of the drawn-out Yemen conflict.
As mentioned, the attack on the Emirates was another signal to the Americans. It was the Biden administration that just under a year ago removed the Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, from its list of terrorist organizations, to which it was added at the end of the Trump administration. Since then, even if not directly as a result, the Houthis have doubled their attacks on Saudi targets and are now attacking the Emirates, as well.
Reinstating the Houthis’ terrorist designation in the United States is a necessary step, but it will not be enough. Iran continues to conduct itself like the head of a criminal organization sending its soldiers to do its dirty work for it. If they succeed, it reaps all the gains. If they fail, it doesn’t affect Iran.
This is another incident that demonstrates to the world who is on the other side of the negotiating table in Vienna. Iran behaves one way when it is under the watchful eye of the international community, and in another sans the special status and bargaining power of a “threshold state.” This is a lesson on how it could act in a different reality.
The international community, under the leadership of the United States, needs to break this equation. Iran must be made to pay for the actions of its proxies, especially when those actions are carried out with its knowledge or using weapons obtained with its help. It would also be right to adopt methods to come down much harder on the distribution of drone weaponry.
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy & National Security in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021. Prior to that, for 25 years he held senior positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shabak).
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.