Tremor in Yemen
The Yemeni civil war, in which an Iran-supported Shia militia, the Ansar Allah movement (the ‘Houthis’) is clashing with a Saud- led coalition supporting the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi, is largely neglected by western media coverage.
This is unfortunate. Recent events related to Yemen demonstrate the growing confidence and audacity of the Iran-led regional bloc, and its apparent belief that it can with impunity escalate the ‘rules of the game’ to include not only strikes on US proxies, but now also direct attacks on US assets themselves.
On October 9th, and again on October 12th, the USS Mason, a US Navy destroyer, was operating in the strategically crucial area of the Bab el-Mandeb Straits off the coast of Yemen, when it was targeted by two missiles fired from territory controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The narrow straits connect the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. They are a vital crossing point for ships transporting oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal and thence to the Mediterranean.
The USS Mason’s mission was to ensure the continued and unimpeded transition of shipping through the Straits. The ship fired its own missiles to intercept the threats and sustained no damage. The Mason was then targeted again on October 12th and possibly again on the 15th (this incident is still under investigation).
The USS Mason, along with two other US Navy ships – the USS Nitze and the USS Ponce had been deployed to the straits after an earlier attack on a UAE logistics vessel, the HSV Swift, on October 1st.
The missile fired, according to a report by the US Naval Institute, was a C-802 anti-ship missile. It was a missile of this type which was launched by the Lebanese Hizballah on the Israeli ship INS Hanit, during the Second Lebanon War, on July 14th 2006. This Chinese-produced missile was sold for a time by Beijing to Iran. The Iranians reverse engineered it, and now produce a version of their own. The Iranians, as noted above, are the main backers of the Houthis.
The attack came a day after a Saudi air strike on the Houthi controlled Yemeni capital of Sana’a, in which around 140 people were killed.
The Ansar Allah organization, better known as the Houthis, denied responsibility for the launching of the missiles. The denials followed, however, a statement by the organization’s leader Abd al Malik al-Houthi, in which he blamed the US for the bombing. Al-Houthi said that “the first and foremost party responsible for the carnage” was the US and added that “the Saudis are killing Yemenis by means of U.S. weapons and military aircraft. They strike where Americans pinpoint and allow.”
The missile attack also coincided with a Scud missile attack from Houthi controlled territory on the Saudi city of Taif.
The balance of probabilities, given the timing, location of the tactics and the ordnance used points overwhelmingly towards the Iranian backed Ansar Allah as the organization responsible. A senior US official quoted by ABC News said that there was ‘no doubt’ that the Houthis carried out the attack.
The attacks were followed by a US response, which targeted three coastal radar sites in Houthi controlled territory. It was the first direct US attack against Houthi controlled targets. The Pentagon then noted that the US would respond ‘as appropriate’ to any further attacks.
The attacks on the USS Mason and its accompanying craft represent a raising of the stakes by the Iranians in the tension surrounding the Yemen war and the Bab el-Mandeb Straits. The Houthis are not direct proxies of Teheran. Their relationship is more akin to that of Hamas with Iran rather than that of Hizballah with its masters in Teheran.
That is, Ansar Allah is an organization with its own genuine local roots and agenda, which nevertheless benefits from and relies on Iranian assistance, supplies and training.
The launch of a C-802 anti-ship missile, however, is no simple military exercise of the type generally undertaken by a ragged guerrilla force like the Houthis. It involves a high level of expertise and the employment of advanced technical means. The targeting of the USS Mason, therefore, may well have constituted an instance of direct Iranian involvement at some level in a military attack on a US ship.
Whether or not there were direct Iranian fingerprints on the attack, it is extremely unlikely that the Houthis themselves would have decided unilaterally on a very sharp escalation of this kind. Iranian approval for the attacks is thus a near certainty.
What this means is that in the current regional reality, the Iranians and their allies feel sufficiently emboldened to engage in proxy or not-so-proxy military assaults not only on US allies in the region (the Saudis in Yemen), but also on US forces themselves.
Such attacks are an indicator of the extent to which US deterrence has declined in the Middle East. There is a strongly-evidenced sense among both friends and foes that any US response to aggression against it will be judicious, restrained, proportionate and brief. A response of this kind hands the initiative to any aggressor able to calculate and absorb it. Renewed deterrence will come only from setting the price higher.
Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy commander of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff, was quoted this week as saying that “The presence of America in the region is a cancerous malign tumor that can only be treated by removing the filthy tumor and the ejection of America from the region.’
No ambiguity from that side, then. It is unlikely, these words aside, that Iran seeks confrontation at the present time. Teheran is busy fighting for control in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and is not yet close to victory in any of these arenas. But in the meantime, disrupting Red Sea and Persian Gulf commerce and poking a finger in the eye of the supposed custodians of that area’s security is a useful, apparently low cost method of showing which way the regional winds are blowing.