analysisMiddle East

Will the US task force undo years of neglecting the Houthi threat?

Iran and its Houthi proxy have launched a long-term effort blockade shipping to Israel and are threatening global shipping as well.

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.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

As the U.S.-led naval task force in the Red Sea operates defensively against the threat posed by the Houthis in Yemen, the wider question of whether Washington will reverse years of neglect and downplaying of the Iran-backed Houthi threat remains open. 

It remains unclear whether the increased tensions in the region will develop into conflict, or whether Washington will make due with minimal defensive measures. 

Iran and its Houthi proxy are likely gambling on wearing out Washington’s patience and blockading shipping to Israel indefinitely, creating a threat that Israel cannot accept.

And if they succeed, Tehran likely has its sights set on the Persian Gulf, experts warn. 

In recent days, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian spoke with his British counterpart, David Cameron, to discuss regional developments. Cameron told Abdollahian that Iran bore responsibility for preventing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, the Meir Amit Intelligence Terrorism Information Center reported, citing Iranian media. 

 Abdollahian said Iran would respond forcefully to any aggression by the “Zionist entity” and that stopping a “Zionist ship in the Red Sea” could not be seen as a threat to the security of the shipping routes while Israel was allowed to carry out “massacres of women and children” and ignite the region, according to the report. 

In a recent sign of ongoing Iran-Houthi coordination, on Dec. 31 Iranian state media reported that Ali-Akbar Ahmadian, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council—the main Iranian military decision-making body—met with the Houthi spokesman and chief negotiator Mohammad Abdeslam. 

Ahmadian praised the Houthis’ recent actions, which included a spate of attacks on Red Sea commercial shipping and the firing of missiles and UAVs at Eilat, most of which have been intercepted by American, Israeli, Egyptian and Saudi air defenses. 

On that same day, Reuters reported that at least 10 Houthis were killed and two wounded in an attack carried out by American forces on four Houthi boats trying to take control of a Danish ship in the Red Sea.

In response, Yahya Saria, spokesman for the Houthi armed forces, said the United States was responsible for the “crime” and its consequences. He said the American military operation in the Red Sea was designed to protect Israeli ships but would not prevent Yemen from “fulfilling its duty to support the Palestinians.” 

He reiterated that the Houthi forces would continue to prevent the passage of Israeli ships or ships sailing towards Israeli ports—thereby confirming the Houthi—Iranian strategy of blockading Israel’s Red Sea shipping lanes, posing a severe threat to its economy, as well as to the wider global economy. 

Abdeslam Hajaf, a member of the Houthis’ Shura Council and Defense and Security Committee, claimed that the American attack was a “declaration of war.”

Britain’s Times newspaper, meanwhile, reported that Britain and the United States are preparing to carry out a series of attacks against the Houthis, and may be joined by another European country. 

In a sign of the orchestrated nature of the Houthi actions as part of the Iranian radical terror axis, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad issued an announcement on Dec. 31 condemning the American action against Houthi forces, and called on Arab and Islamic nations to “confront the American aggression against Yemen by all possible means.”  

Iran’s Alborz warship has entered the Red Sea after passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, an Iranian news agency reported on Jan. 1. In its report, Tasnim, which is said to be close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), did not specify the details of the Alborz’s mission but linked the move to Israel’s war against Hamas.

“Following rising tensions in the Gaza war, there has been an acceleration in developments in the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait,” it said.

IDF Col. (res.) Shaul Shay, a lecturer at Reichman University in Herzliya and a senior research associate at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, noted that the strong connection between Iran and the Houthis goes back to 2014, when the Houthis conquered the Yemenite capital of Sana’a, and from there began expanding to other parts of the country, almost seizing Aden as well. 

“Then the Saudis established their coalition and entered the battle to push back the Houthis and save the legitimate government. What happened is that at this stage of the war, in fact, the main advantage of the Saudis, of the coalition was, in air power, and they really tried to use it to the best of their ability. And this created two processes that in my opinion affect what we are at today,” said Shay, who served as deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council from 2007 to 2009. 

The first is that Iran entered the war on the side of the Houthis in a very distinct manner, despite its many denials. In practice, said Shay, Iran began providing the Houthis with a strategic answer to Saudi air superiority, such as UAVs, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles. 

“From the Iranian perspective, this quickly became a proxy war, which was about regional hegemony in the Middle East. Iran against the Saudi axis,” said Shay. 

The second process involved the Western reaction. Unfortunately, said Shay, at this stage, the United States and Western Europe began to blame Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen and its many civilian casualties, while failing to recognize that this was a strategic battle for the fate of the Middle East. 

Meanwhile, the Houthis began bombarding Saudi cities and military sites with missiles and UAVs. In 2019, strikes targeted Saudi oil fields at Abqaiq and Khurais, which stopped half of Saudi oil exports at the time and which according to a U.S. investigation originated from Iran directly, despite Houthi claims of responsibility. 

In order to avoid repeating the same mistake now, Shay argued, the U.S. task force in the Red Sea will need to go further than merely providing a protective envelope against missiles and sea mines targeting shipping. 

“If this is how it ends, the Iranians and Houthis will win the war. The scenario of an Iranian victory includes the Houthis continuing to threaten the ships,” Shay added. 

This would encourage Iran to replicate what it is doing in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, through which pass most oil exports from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq. 

“They will close it when they want to, and through the Houthis, they control the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. This has huge strategic implications, also economically, on the entire global economy,” said Shay. “The Bab el-Mandeb issue should have been solved a few years ago. But if we’ve come this far, this is not an Israeli problem. It is about strategic control over a critical waterway via militias.”

As of this writing, Shay noted that not only are the Iranians not being punished for activating the Houthis, but neither are the Houthis themselves.

“This situation is, at least in my view, intolerable,” he said.

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