Jan 12, 2024
Middle East braces for chaos as Iran and West square up
US-led strikes against Houthi rebels come as Tehran’s partners sow havoc from Lebanon to the Red Sea. Experts fear it’s only the beginning.
Western warplanes and guided missiles roared through the skies over Yemen in the early hours of Friday in a dramatic response to the worsening crisis engulfing the region, where the U.S. and its allies are facing a direct confrontation with Iranian-backed militants.
The strikes against Houthi fighters are a response to weeks of fighting in the Red Sea, where the group has attempted to attack or hijack dozens of civilian cargo ships and tankers in what it calls retribution for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. Washington launched the massive aerial bombardment of the group’s military stores and drone launch sites in partnership with British forces, and with the support of a growing coalition that includes Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, South Korea and Bahrain.
Tensions between Tehran and the West have boiled over in the weeks since its ally, Hamas, launched its October 7 attack on Israel, while Hezbollah, the military group that controls much of southern Lebanon, has stepped up rocket launches across the border. Along with Hamas and Hezbollah, the Houthis form part of the Iranian-led ‘Axis of Resistance’ opposed to both the U.S. and Israel.
Now, the prospect of a full-blown conflict in one of the most politically fragile and strategically important parts of the world is spooking security analysts and energy markets alike.
Houthi leaders responded to the strikes, which saw American and British forces hit more than 60 targets in 16 locations, with characteristic bravado. They warned the U.S. and U.K. will “have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences” for what they called a “blatant aggression.”
“We will confront America, kneel it down, and burn its battleships and all its bases and everyone who cooperates with it, no matter what the cost,” threatened Abdulsalam Jahaf, a member of the group’s security council.
However, following the overnight operation, Camille Lons, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said there may now be “a period of calm because it may take Iran some time to replenish the Houthis stocks” before they are able to resume high-intensity attacks on Red Sea shipping. But, she cautioned, their motivation to continue to target shipping will likely be unaltered.
The Western strikes are “unlikely to immediately halt Houthi aggression,” agreed Jonathan Panikoff, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for the Near East. “That will almost certainly mean having to continue to respond to Houthi strikes, and potentially with increasing aggression.”
“The Houthis view themselves as having little to lose, emboldened militarily by Iranian provisions of support and confident the U.S. will not entertain a ground war,” he said.
Iran also upped the ante earlier this week by boarding and commandeering a Greek-operated oil tanker that was loaded with Iraqi crude destined for Turkey, intercepting it as it transited the Strait of Hormuz.
The vessel, the St. Nikolas, was previously apprehended for violating sanctions on Iranian oil and its cargo was confiscated and sold off by the U.S. Treasury Department. Its Greek captain and crew of 18 Filipino nationals are now in Iranian custody, with the incident marking a sharp escalation in the threats facing maritime traffic.
Washington and London are striving to distinguish their bid to deter the Houthis in the Red Sea from the war in Gaza, fearful that merging the two will hand Tehran a propaganda advantage in the Middle East. The Houthis and Iran are keen to accomplish the reverse.
The Houthi leadership claims its attacks on maritime traffic are aimed at pressuring Israel to halt its bombing of the Gaza Strip and it insists it is only targeting commercial vessels linked to Israel or destined to dock at the Israeli port of Eilat, a point contested by Western powers.
“The Houthis claim that their attacks on military and civilian vessels are somehow tied to the ongoing conflict in Gaza — that is completely baseless and illegitimate.
The Houthis also claim to be targeting specifically Israeli-owned ships or ships bound for Israel. That is simply not true, they are firing indiscriminately on vessels with global ties,” a senior U.S. official briefing reporters in Washington said Friday.
Wider Near East crisis
The Red Sea isn’t the only hotspot where American and European forces and their allies are facing off against Iran and its partners.
In November, U.S. F-15 fighter jets hit a weapons storage facility in eastern Syria that the Pentagon says was used by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Shia militants it supports in the war-torn country. The response came after dozens of American troops were reportedly injured in attacks in Iraq and Syria linked back to Tehran.
Israel’s war with Hamas has also risked spreading, after a blast killed one of the militant group’s commanders in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, earlier in January. Hezbollah vowed a swift response and tensions have soared along the border between the two countries, with Israeli civilians evacuated from their homes in towns and villages close to the frontier.
All of that contributes to an increasingly volatile environment that has neighboring countries worried, said Christian Koch, director at the Saudi Arabia-based Gulf Research Center.
“There’s a lot at stake at the moment and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others are extremely worried about further escalation and then being subject to retaliation,” he said. “Now, the danger of regional escalation has been heightened further, which could mean that Iran will get further involved in the conflict, and this is a dangerous spiral downwards.”
While long-planned efforts to normalize ties between the Saudis and Israel collapsed in the wake of the October 7 attack and the subsequent military response, Riyadh has pushed forward with a policy of de-escalation with the Houthis after a decade of violent conflict, and sought an almost unprecedented rapprochement with Iran.
“Saudi Arabia has had one objective, which is to prevent this from escalating into a wider regional war,” said Tobias Borck, an expert on Middle East security at the Royal United Services Institute. “It has attempted over the last few years to bring its intervention in the war in Yemen to a close, including through negotiations with the Houthis and actually from all we know from the outside, [they] are reasonably close to an agreement.”
The Western coalition is therefore a source of anxiety, rather than relief, for Gulf States.
“Saudi Arabia and UAE are staying out of this coalition because mainly they don't want to have the Houthis attack them as they had been for years and years with cruise missiles,” said retired U.S. General Mark Kimmitt, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
However, American or European boots on the ground are unlikely to be necessary, he added, because "our capabilities these days to find, fix and attack even mobile missile launchers is pretty well refined.”
At the intersection of Europe and Asia, the Red Sea is a vital thoroughfare for energy and international trade. Maritime traffic through the region has already dropped by 20 percent, Rear Admiral Emmanuel Slaars, the joint commander of French forces in the region, told reporters on Thursday.
According to data published this week by the German IfW Kiel institute, global trade fell by 1.3 percent from November to December, with the Houthi attacks likely to have been a contributing factor.
The volume of containers in the Red Sea also plummeted and is currently almost 70 percent below usual, the institute said. In December, that caused freight costs and transportation time to rise and imports and exports from the EU to be “significantly lower” than in November.
In one indication of the impact on industrial supply chains, U.S. electric vehicle maker Tesla said Friday it would shut its factory in Germany for two weeks.
Around 12 percent of the world’s oil and 8 percent of its gas normally flow through the waterway, as well as hundreds of cargo ships.
Oil prices climbed more than 2.5 percent following the strikes, fueling market concerns of the impact a wider conflict could have on oil supplies from the region, especially those being shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, linking the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean and the world’s most important oil chokepoint.
The Houthi attacks on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, have already caused major shipping companies, including oil giant BP, to halt shipments through the Red Sea, opting for a lengthy detour around the Cape of Good Hope instead.
According to Borck, the impact on energy prices has been limited so far but will depend on what happens next.
“We need to look for two actors’ actions here. One is the Houthis, how they respond, and the other one is, of course, looking at how Iran responds,” he said. While Tehran has the “nuclear option” of closing the Strait of Hormuz altogether, it’s unlikely to do so at this stage.
“I don't think the Strait of Hormuz is next. I think there would be quite a few steps on the escalation ladder first,” he added.
But Simone Tagliapietra, an energy expert at Brussels’ Bruegel think tank, warned that a growing confrontation with Iran could lead to tougher enforcement of sanctions on its oil exports. The West has turned a blind eye to Tehran’s increasing sales to China in the wake of the war in Ukraine, which has relieved some pressure on global energy markets.
A crackdown, he believes, “could see global oil prices rising substantially, pushing inflation higher and further complicating the efforts of central banks to bring it under control.”
However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could help compensate for such a move by ramping up their own production — provided they’re willing to risk the ire of Iran.
Gabriel Gavin reported from Yerevan, Armenia. Antonia Zimmermann from Brussels and Jamie Dettmer from Tel-Aviv.Laura Kayali contributed reporting from Paris.