Geopolitics Military Affairs

Iran opens another front against Israel: Yemen’s Houthi attacks threaten global shipping

Jerguš Lajoš

In response to Israel’s operation in Gaza, Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement has stepped up attacks against shipping in the Red Sea. In addition to the far-reaching economic impact of disrupting one of the world’s most important shipping routes, of particular concern is the Houthi link to Iran and the resulting risk of a wider regional conflict if the US decides to intervene militarily in Yemen.

Domestic political points

Domestically, the Houthis have effectively used the Gaza conflict to rally support among the Yemeni public. The large-scale pro-Palestinian Houthi demonstrations have proven more successful than their past campaigns against the Saudi-led coalition, which has previously intervened directly in military actions against rebels in Yemen. By emphasising Israel as an enemy oppressing the Palestinians and by attacking international transport, the movement is pursuing two objectives simultaneously: consolidating its power in Yemen and diverting attention from the internal administration issues of the state. Concurrently, the Houthis are strengthening their position in the ongoing peace negotiations aimed at ending the civil war in Yemen.

Iranian connection

Iran has long supported the Houthis in Yemen, and the movement’s activities against Israel and international transport must be seen primarily in this context. It is Iran that is one of Israel’s main enemies in the region, and it has also long supported Palestinian Hamas and other radical Palestinian organisations.  However, since Tehran is not interested in a direct military confrontation with Tel Aviv, it uses various proxy actors such as Hezbollah or the Houthis to dissuade Israel from continuing its operation in Gaza.  In this respect, the disruption of international shipping is a way of pressuring the international community, and the US in particular, to reconsider its previous stance of support for Tel Aviv.  Politically, Iran’s alliance with the Houthis reflects a shared ideological and strategic opposition to Israel and the US or regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and is a continuation of Iran’s broader regional strategy of supporting groups such as Hamas in Gaza. The strategic importance of the Red Sea as a global trade route adds another dimension to Iran’s support for the Houthis. The deployment of the Iranian warship Alborz to the area signals Tehran’s intention to maintain a significant presence in this critical maritime region. The move is consistent with Iran’s long-term maritime strategy and serves as a counterweight to the increased militarisation of U.S. and allied forces in the area.

Attacks on the maritime transport

The Houthi attacks on the maritime traffic in the waters around Yemen have had a significant impact on the global market, disrupting one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes, which runs through the Red Sea and connects Western markets with India and China.  As a result of the increased risks, major shipping companies have been forced to reroute their ships to a longer route around Africa, resulting in significantly longer journey times and higher costs. In this context, freight rates have risen dramatically, exacerbating the already precarious state of the world economy due to inflationary pressures. Any disruption has global impacts given the strategic importance of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which lies between Yemen and Djibouti and Eritrea, respectively, and serves as a conduit for 15% of world trade and energy shipments. This situation is compounded by the potential for an escalation of conflict in which Iran could become directly involved, posing a significant threat to global oil supplies and the broader recovery of the global economy.

US response and increased security in the Red Sea

In response to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, the United States has stepped up its military and diplomatic efforts. To counter this threat, the U.S. initiated Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international task force designed to protect shipping and counter Iranian-sponsored maritime aggression. This operational group, which is part of a broader effort to protect shipping at key maritime checkpoints in the Middle East, underscores the U.S. commitment to regional stability and sustaining the global economy. As part of the measures, the US and 12 other countries issued a strong warning, threatening increased military action if the attacks continue. In the region, the allies, led by the U.S., have stepped up their military presence, deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and engaging in defensive actions such as shooting down missiles and sinking Houthi vessels. However, analysts suggest that a shift to more offensive tactics, including direct strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, may be necessary to ensure the free flow of goods in this economically important region. On 12 January, the militaries of the United States and the United Kingdom, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, indeed conducted strikes against military targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

Is a wider regional conflict imminent?

However, it should be kept in mind that a possible direct confrontation via and especially land operation against Houthi forces on Yemeni territory would increase the risk and could potentially lead to a more extensive and prolonged US military engagement in the region. The geopolitical implications of such a move are tricky, especially given Iran’s support for the Houthis. A ground operation could quickly escalate into a wider regional conflict, possibly involving other regional powers besides Tehran, further complicating the complex power dynamics in the Middle East. The impact on global trade and the economy must also be considered. The Red Sea is an essential artery of international trade, and any escalation of the conflict could lead to even more significant disruptions affecting global shipping and supply chains. The operation would face many challenges, including intelligence gathering, logistical support and the need for cooperation from regional allies. The effectiveness and duration of such an operation and its potential to achieve the desired regional stability outcome would have to be carefully weighed against the risks and costs it would entail.

Looking to the future, the international community’s response to these events is also critical. The United Nations and maritime organisations have expressed deep concern about the escalating tensions and their impact on global trade and regional stability. Efforts are underway to enhance maritime security and strengthen the capacity of regional law enforcement agencies, but these are long-term challenges. The Houthi attacks pose a significant threat to regional peace and security, and their linkage to broader regional conflicts, such as the violence in Gaza, further complicates the situation. A coordinated international effort that emphasises de-escalation and respect for international law is essential. The aim of this approach must be to protect crucial global sea lanes and to ensure the security and stability of the region. The situation requires a thorough understanding of the various motivations and strategies at stake, along with a concerted effort by all stakeholders to mitigate risks and promote a secure and stable environment in the Red Sea. This complex scenario underscores the need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach involving regional powers and international stakeholders to manage these challenges and ensure lasting security and stability.

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