Bobby Ghosh: Houthis are now Iran’s most crucial ally

In a bold move, Iran has deployed the aging frigate IRIS Alborz to the Arabian Peninsula, signalling support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. Despite its limited military impact, the symbolic gesture strengthens Iran’s ties with the rebels, now a crucial ally. As Iran faces challenges in Gaza and hesitates to deploy Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels offer a more disruptive force, controlling vital trade routes. The international community, particularly the US, must address the growing Houthi threat strategically beyond naval operations.

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The Houthis Are Now Iran’s Most Potent Proxy: Bobby Ghosh

By: Bobby Ghosh

The IRIS Alborz, pride of the Iranian navy, isn’t much of a warship. Commissioned in 1971, the frigate is both long in tooth and lacking in teeth: Decades of sanctions have obliged Iran to jerry-rig it with homemade combat systems, well short of the firepower of equivalent vessels in the world’s major naval fleets.

The ship serves important symbolic purposes, though. It is a reminder that the Islamic Republic is a maritime state, if not quite a power. Its armaments, limited as they are, also advertise Iran’s indigenous weapons-making capabilities. When it sails out of its home port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, the Alborz projects not power so much as defiance.

Right now, the vessel is serving symbolic functions on the far side of the Arabian Peninsula, as reassurance and recognition for a key ally: the Houthi rebels of Yemen, who have been attacking international shipping on one of the world’s most important sea routes. They have also fired missiles in the direction of Israel, in support of another Iranian ally, Hamas.

The Alborz will not provide them with much protection from the US-led naval flotilla, known as Operation Prosperity Guardian, that is interdicting the Houthis’ missiles and drones, as well as sinking some of their boats. But Tehran is signaling to the rebels that they are not alone.

For Iran, this is an unusually open demonstration of military support for one of its extensive network of allies and proxies in the Middle East. Tehran typically uses cloak and dagger means to train, finance and arm groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq. In public, Iran’s leaders limit themselves to rhetorical encouragement and approval.

That is how it has been with the Houthis. Tehran developed ties with the rebels long before they burst onto the international scene nearly 10 years ago, by capturing the Yemeni capital Sana’a, and toppling the internationally recognized government. Since then, Iran has supplied the Houthis with increasingly sophisticated missiles and drones, as well as the means to produce them locally.

This support enabled the rebels to defeat an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia that sought to restore the now exiled government. Tehran’s weapons have also allowed the Houthis to strike deep into Saudi territory, most spectacularly with the 2019 attacks on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure. The Saudis were eventually obliged to sue for peace.     

Throughout, Iran maintained the fiction that the Houthis were acting alone. Only once, in the spring of 2015, did it send a naval flotilla â€” led by the Alborz, as it happens — to try and break a blockade of Yemeni ports by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But after the US sent an aircraft carrier group to intercept the flotilla, the Iranians quietly withdrew. Back then, the Houthis were one of Tehran’s lesser proxies, not in the league of Hezbollah or Hamas; the situation didn’t merit the risk of a confrontation with the US.

Iran’s more determined defiance this time on behalf of the Houthis reflects their elevation to the first rank of allies. It is a reward for their humiliation of one of the Iranian regime’s sworn enemies, Saudi Arabia, as well as an appreciation of their utility in the fight against another, Israel.

The promotion is especially timely for Tehran. Its main catspaw against Israel, Hamas, is being severely degraded by the war in Gaza. Iran is reluctant to deploy Hezbollah, partly for fear of depleting its oldest, most powerful client.

Boosting the Houthis makes more sense for Iran because they can be much more disruptive than any of the other proxies — as they have just demonstrated by essentially frightening off commercial shipping from a sea lane that accounts for 12% of world trade.

MAP OF THE DAY: Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Container ships heading toward Europe and/or North America, with almost all avoiding the Red Sea (red).

More than two weeks after the launch of US-led ‘Prosperity Guardian’, the Houthis still rule in the Red Sea. pic.twitter.com/JK0oLMkvlA

— Javier Blas (@JavierBlas) January 3, 2024

While Hezbollah’s main utility to Tehran is as the protector of Iranian interests in Lebanon and Syria, and Hamas’s principal purpose is to kill Israelis, the Houthis can wreak economic damage on Iran’s near enemies, the wider world and, by extension, the US.

It helps the Iranian cause that the Houthis operate with fewer restraints than any other proxy. Unlike Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, the Yemeni rebels don’t need to manage complex multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian local politics. Unlike Hamas, they are out of reach of the Israeli Defense Forces. They command a large country, with plenty of remote redoubt from which to fire off Iran’s missiles. And their proximity to some of the world’s main sources of energy amplifies their threat potential.

It should surprise nobody, then, if the Houthis grow in Iranian esteem, and eventually match — and perhaps even exceed — Hezbollah. This prospect terrifies Yemen’s Arab neighbors; tellingly, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have dared to join Operation Prosperity Guardian.

For the wider world, responding to the growing Houthi menace will require much more than naval flotillas to the Red Sea. Rather than react to provocations by the rebels and their masters in Tehran, the US and its allies will need to impose restraints on their ability to do harm (see my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Admiral James Stavridis’s recommendations on that score) while strengthening their domestic rivals. The latter include forces loyal to the government in exile and armed elements around Aden, known as the Southern Movement. That would present challenges, such as the inconvenient fact that the Southern Movement seeks separation from Yemen, and that corrupt and inept politicians make up the exiled government.

Given its age and condition, the Alborz’s deployment is likely to be short. It has already fulfilled its symbolic purposes. But long after the frigate’s return to Bandar Abbas, Iran and its newly elevated ally will represent a danger to the Red Sea.

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