Delisting the Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, as a terrorist organization was among the Biden administration’s first acts in the region.
The administration’s motives were understandable. First and foremost, the wish to enable aid to be rushed to a population suffering terrible deprivations. However, it was a beginner’s mistake. It was interpreted by rulers in Sana’a and their backers in Tehran as a sign (one of several) that the United States was turning its back on traditional allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, indeed, soon sent a “thank you” note in the form of a long-range missile attack on Saudi civilian targets.
The pattern persisted, reaching a new level of murderous audacity with the drone attack on Abu Dhabi on Jan. 17, which claimed three lives. This was followed by an ugly intimidation campaign, depicting the targeting of Burj Khalifa. The images, reminiscent of 9/11, were aimed at scaring citizens and investors.
This escalation puzzled some observers, who expected Iran to lower the flames as it pressed the United States and the West for concessions in Vienna. There has been speculation that the Houthis no longer act in full coordination with Iran, particularly after the mysterious death of Iran’s “ambassador” to Yemen and commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Sana’a, Hassan Irloo, in December.
However, there is no reason to be mystified by the dangerous combination of Iranian diplomatic action on one hand and Iran-backed violence—in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere—on the other. They fit well together in the broader context of the regime’s bloated vision of itself as a global power and standard-bearer of a revolutionary message challenging the post-1945 world order. Ultimately, this vision will come to full fruition with Tehran’s possession of a nuclear bomb.
Violence is a way of testing the proposition that the present U.S. administration has no stomach for a confrontation, and therefore will impose its will neither in Vienna nor in the region.
Moreover, there is another reason for the timing of this escalation. Namely, the severe reversal suffered by Houthi forces in their bid to take over the Marib and Shabwah governorates. On both fronts, the main force confronting them has been the Giants Brigades (al-Weyat al-Amaliqa), a group trained and armed by the UAE and part of the Saudi-led anti-Houthi coalition supporting Yemen’s legitimate government.
The deep divisions within the alliance, mainly due to support by the UAE for separatist elements in South Yemen, have been patched over sufficiently to generate an effective operational capacity.
The United States should change course and reverse the delisting of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, as there is a greater chance of turning the tide in Yemen. In addition, there is a need to dispel Iran’s delusions, which allowed for the absurd situation in which Iran’s leaders, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, are the ones who decide if, and when, the United States will be allowed in the room in Vienna!
With all due respect to the noble diplomatic efforts of U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking, he himself acknowledged, in an interview with Stephen Snyder in The World, in December, that “the key factor that really plays the most detrimental influence, I think, in our view, is Iran.”
His goal of de-escalation and a political solution could thus be facilitated if Iran and the Houthis were disabused of their common assumption that they have already won the war.
The United States may already be leaning this way, as President Joe Biden said last week that his administration is considering re-designating the Houthi movement as a terrorist organization after the drone attack on the UAE.
This, along with overt support for the UAE, would deliver a sharp message and likely have a beneficial effect on Iranian conduct in Vienna.
The conduct of Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, and his team has been driven by the illusion that they are in a position of strength. There can be little prospect of a successful outcome until this misperception is shattered. At which point it would probably be the blunt but friendly advice of Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to the nuclear talks, that would induce the Iranian leadership to cut its losses and compromise.
Israel should stand ready to provide solutions
As for Israel, it has a triple role to play. Direct military meddling in Yemen should be considered impractical at present and even harmful to the Saudi-led coalition’s interests.
Even though the Houthis (unlike Iran, which pretends to distinguish “Jews” from “Zionists”) openly wave the anti-Semitic banner—a “curse upon the Jews”—intervention of any sort in a remote and unfamiliar country would probably not end well, at least until Israel builds a solid intelligence foundation for potential action.
While Israel must prepare defensive options against missile or drone raids or attacks on shipping, let alone the danger of a more systemic disruption in the Bab el-Mandeb strait, its immediate efforts in response to the escalation should be three-pronged.
First, and most importantly, Israel should encourage the re-designation of the Houthis, and convey to the United States and other countries that there are other ways of delivering humanitarian assistance.
Second, intelligence cooperation should be strengthened with the Saudi-led coalition, and Israeli intelligence should be tasked with monitoring the Iranian and Houthi threats. Iran’s arms supply routes to Yemen are of specific importance, primarily the sea routes.
Finally, being a global powerhouse in the field of drone and counter-drone technology, Israel should stand ready to provide solutions to this specific challenge.
(JISS held a webinar on this subject, with a detailed presentation by Dr. Uzi Rubin, a leading authority on missile defense and UAVs, which can be viewed here.)
Such acts of assistance, in turn, would also serve to further cement the Abraham Accords and perhaps expand their scope.
By taking a firm stand on this issue, Israel can once again demonstrate its strategic value as an ally—a goal also served by acting in Syria unrelentingly against Iranian assets.
IDF Col. (res) Dr. Eran Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.