Under pressure from US, Iran brings Houthi rebels into the fray

When Tehran feels threatened, the Houthis and other proxies join the fray, escalating their rhetoric against Washington to exert more pressure.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Houthi fighters shout slogans as they attend a rally in Sanaa, March 26. (Reuters)
Absurd threats. Houthi fighters shout slogans as they attend a rally in Sanaa, March 26. (Reuters)

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have added to tensions between Washington and Tehran, threatening to strike US allies in the region should violence escalate in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, where a fragile ceasefire is in place.

“Our missiles are capable of reaching Riyadh and beyond Riyadh, to Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” Houthi leader Abdelmalik al-Houthi said to the militia-run Al Masirah TV.

“It is possible to target strategic, vital, sensitive and influential targets in the event of any escalation in Hodeidah,” he added. “We are able to strongly shake the Emirati economy.”

Strategically situated on the Red Sea coast, Hodeidah port serves as an entry point for most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid and commercial imports. The town is central to the United Nations’ efforts to implement a ceasefire agreed to by warring parties in December, which has failed to go into effect due to the Houthis repeatedly delaying their forces’ withdrawal.

Al-Houthi’s threats of missile strikes, which came shortly after the United States removed its sanctions waivers on Iranian oil exports — a devastating blow to Tehran’s economy — are part of a larger regional strategy.

Much like Iran, the Houthis often issue threats to gain geopolitical leverage over their adversaries. Sometimes these threats border on the absurd. Recently, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, another high-ranking Houthi figure, spoke of emptying some 1 million barrels of oil into the Red Sea, which would trigger an unprecedented environmental disaster.

In mid-2017, Houthi Deputy Spokesman Aziz Rashid made an even more menacing threat, warning that, if the war in Yemen was not brought to an end, the rebels would “go for conquering Saudi cities.”

Since war broke out in 2015, the Houthis have routinely fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, including at army bases and oil facilities.

The rebels’ new threats, however, raise four key points:

First, not only are the Houthis supported by Tehran, they operate as part of Iran’s larger proxy web across the region. This means that when Tehran feels threatened, such as by the United States’ decision to end sanctions waivers for their oil exports, the Houthis and other proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, join the fray, escalating their rhetoric against Washington to exert more pressure.

Second, to issue serious threats against Arab Gulf countries, the Houthis are aiming to collect information on “sensitive” and “vital” sites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, specifically oil and economic installations. This comes as no surprise and it was all but admitted by the Houthis in 2017.

These hostile efforts clearly pose a threat to regional security, helping explain the Saudi-led coalition’s position in Yemen in support of the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Third, there are key unanswered questions about the Houthis’ military technology. Have the Houthis modified their Borkan missiles? Did Iran help them develop the technology and provide training for them to target Saudi Arabia and the UAE? If so, Iran’s actions could be seen and dealt with as an act of war by proxy. This would further Tehran’s troubles, which include a worsening economic and security situation.

Last, whether or not the Houthis’ recent threats against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are serious, it is clear that the group is not ready for peace in Yemen. Despite Houthi leaders telling UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths that they are committed to a political settlement, their hostile acts and inflammatory rhetoric betray their true intentions.

In Yemen, while much of the focus is on Hodeidah, it is important to remember that violence is raging across the country. Recently, clashes in Dhale governorate forced the International Rescue Committee to suspend and relocate its critical, life-saving work, said Frank McManus, the organisation’s Yemen country director.

Complicating the situation in Yemen are the Houthis’ non-conventional war methods. The group is reportedly recruiting child fighters, using human shields, diverting humanitarian aid and utilising landmines, making everyday life even more dangerous for citizens across the country.

The Houthis’ reliance on landmines has been especially harmful, leading to hundreds of civilian casualties since mid-2017, a recent Human Rights Watch report stated.

“Houthi-laid landmines have not only killed and maimed numerous civilians but they have prevented vulnerable Yemenis from harvesting crops and drawing clean water desperately needed for survival,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

“Mines have also prevented aid groups from bringing food and health care to increasingly hungry and ill Yemeni civilians.”

The situation in Yemen is already dire but the Houthis appear ready to exacerbate the conflict simply to help out their friends in Tehran. This comes as no surprise and was predicted in a March commentary in this publication headlined, “How will Iran respond if the US leaves nuclear agreement?”

In that commentary, it was noted that “The United States’ move against the Iran accord could embolden an already aggressive Tehran, leading it to increase its destabilising tactics through its ties to terror groups.” The column further noted that Tehran would use its proxies to “exacerbate existing conflicts in the region and lead to new ones outside of Syria and Yemen.”

Today, it is clear Iran’s proxies throughout the region are even more dangerous than the country’s nuclear ambitions. Therefore, to clip the wings of the Islamic Republic, it is necessary to target all of its militia proxies, even those that falsely claim to be legitimate “political players.”

Political players are not usually armed to the teeth, let alone willing to use missiles to threaten neighbouring countries.

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