By Patrick Bahzad
"I need not tell you, Sir, that the
Red Sea is as much closed as the Gulf"
(from 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne)
So this is where President Trump apparently decided to make his first significant foreign policy move. Not in Iraq or Syria, as part of the fight against ISIS and other Jihadi groups, not in Ukraine, which has seen a recent flare-up in combat. But in Yemen, at the Strait of Mandeb, the "Gate of Tears". Push back against Iran is the scent of the day in D.C. and the new administration has picked the most unseemingly place for it. American concern for what is going on in Yemen is understandable and may call for closer monitoring. Aggressive moves in the Red Sea however, or in Yemen itself, bear tremendous risks. The Bab-el-Mandeb, as its name indicates, has always been treacherous waters.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump had already hinted at his determination to take on Iran. He had stressed the need for a more confrontational approach and condemned the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had signed with Tehran, literally threatening to tear it up. As President, he has now backed away from such drastic measures, but heightened tensions with Iran became apparent as soon as he took over at the White House.
Twitter warnings by "The Real Donald Trump" were followed by Iran test firing a ballistic as well as a cruise missile, which may or may not constitute violations of the Nuclear Deal and UNSC resolution 2231. Additionally, in what might be considered an unrelated incident, Houthi forces in Yemen launched an attack against a Saudi frigate, killing two sailors and seriously damaging the ship.
This combination of events triggered National Security Advisor Mike Flynn into putting Iran "on notice", an expression devoid of any meaning in international diplomacy and therefore probably all the more dangerous. The escalation is pretty obvious and additional US sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities only added to it.
But it is not just White House executives like "National Security Advisor" Mike Flynn and "Chief Strategist" Steve Bannon who seem on board with the tough talk about Iran. James Mattis, the newly appointed Secretary of Defence and presumably a voice of reason within the new administration, recently dubbed Iran "the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world". With statements by senior members of the White House and the Cabinet being that unanimous, a feature not necessarily obvious when you look at the short track record of the new Presidency, it is pretty clear that there is now a very deliberate policy shift towards Iran.
Where this is going to take us is hard to say, most likely, not a good place judging by the people in charge and the measures they are contemplating. The most striking thing however about this renewed fixation on Iran is the country chosen to confront the Mullahs. Indeed, why pick small, impoverished and war-ridden Yemen to put the squeeze on Iran ? The answer to that question may already give insights as to what the future has in store for us in that part of the world.
Chaos in Yemen
Yemen has mostly been in the headlines since the Saudis and the GCC began their "Operation Decisive Storm" in 2015. Interfering in their Southern neighbours' business is nothing new for the Saudis, even though in this case, they chose to go in with military force. But Yemen had already been a mess since at least 2004, when the Zaidi Houthis – named after their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi – rose up against local strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In 2011, Saleh lost his grip on Yemen's presidency as a consequence of the "Arab Spring" which also swept away the regime in Sanaa. In a reversal of alliances that Saleh was customary to, he then sided with the Houthis and parts of the army. In 2015, Saleh's army and Houthis forces finally were in a position to overrun much of Central Yemen, almost pushing as far as Aden in the South and Mocha in the South-West (on the coast to the Red Sea).
This was probably too much for the Saudis to stomach, given that there were already rumours about Iranian weapons and advisors helping out Houthi forces at that point. Contrary to the Shia of Southern Lebanon however, the Houthis do not belong to the same branch of Shiism as the Iranians. Branding them as "Iranian proxies" for that reason alone, as seems to be the argument put forward by some think tankers, only points to fundamental ignorance about diversity in beliefs and culture. The Houthis, or rather their Zaidi forefathers, were certainly not considered Iranian proxies when the Saudis supported them in the bloody civil war against Egyptian backed opponents, back in the 1960s.
Operation "Decisive Storm"
In 2015 however, things had changed and the battle for regional hegemony was in full swing between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, or from a broader sectarian perspective, between the Sunni and Shia of the Middle-East. Inexperienced Royals in the Saudi cabinet thought they could make an example of impoverished Yemen, achieving a quick victory and showing their lukewarm allies in D.C., as well as their foes in Tehran, that they were now a force to be reckoned with. Their operation however quickly turned into a P.R. disaster.
Saudi ground forces do not exactly have a fearsome reputation, and this showed time and again in their unsuccessful attempts at driving back the Houthi warriors into their mountainous homeland. Other than the Saudi airforce's reckless airstrikes, which have cost many civilians their lives and brought the country closer to humanitarian disaster, the Saudi military intervention has proven futile. On the ground, in Central and Northern Yemen, the Saudis will never muster a force capable of any significant advance.
Not even allied troops and private mercenary armies will do the trick. Meanwhile, anarchy has taken over parts of Yemen that were reasonably quiet before the Saudis went in. Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula managed to extend its area of influence and even ISIS has taken a foothold in South-Eastern Yemen.
As for the US, their footprint got lighter with Yemen descending into chaos. Al Anad Air Base, which served as a launch pad for many US drone strikes against AQAP over a number a years, was closed when the last US special forces left in March 2015. Ever since then, US camps in Djibouti have taken over the task of hitting the Jihadis. Recent developments however, like the botched SEAL Team 6 raid in January, as well as increased US Navy presence in and around the Red Sea, are indicators of a gear shift in the fight against AQAP and Co.
The Houthis, an Iranian proxy ?
The presence of the local AQ franchise, considered the most effective and most advanced one in a number of areas, may also be one of the reasons why the Trump administration decided to make a move in Yemen. By putting a marker there, the President and his advisors want to show their determination to fight radical Islamism of any credence, which is very much in line with various reports and statements made by a number of current WH officials and advisors.
However, as far as Iranian influence on Yemeni Houthis is concerned, the case is not easy to make. There are most definitely Iranian advisors in Yemen, but their numbers are unknown and in all likelihood, there would be very few of them. On several occasions, Anti-Houthi forces in the South claimed to have arrested Iranians, during the fighting around Aden in particular, but the evidence trail is thin.
And making any case about Iranian meddling in Yemen will take much more than a borderline incompetent interpretation of the Houthis chanting "God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam" as they take on a Saudi frigate with remote controlled torpedo drones. Admittedly, the slogan is not exactly testimony to the Houthis wish for peaceful coexistence.
But inferring from it that the Houthis may actually have been targeting US ships, possibly through seaborne suicide attacks, reflects sheer ignorance about the slogan's genesis and Houthi goals in the current conflict. They certainly are not doing themselves a favour if they want to avoid confrontation with the White House, but those within the administration who have been looking for an excuse to step up military efforts, certainly have one now. In this regard, sending in the "USS Cole" down there is probably not a coincidence either.
Strategic importance of the Mandeb Strait
To be fair, Yemen and the Mandeb Strait certainly feature in good place in Tehran's regional strategy. This is probably where we need to look at, more than at any move made by the Houthis themselves, if we want to understand strategic thinking behind Washington's recent decisions (assuming of course, there is something like a strategy at work here, which is not a given).
From an Iranian point of view, President Trump's first statements as far as they are concerned revolve along two lines: on the one hand, making sure the Iranians comply with every provision of the nuclear deal they signed, and on the other, rolling back Tehran's "nefarious" influence in the region. It is in this context that Iranian moves need to be analysed.
The test firing of missiles is certainly one way for the Iranians to probe American limits and red lines, should there be any. Presumably, they also want to find out what kind of reaction the crossing of any line in the sand might have. Trump has proven he can back away from boastful statements with relative ease, when he realizes that delivering on what he promised might actually not be such a great idea. The Iranians are clever, proficient and subtle operators. Discounting their abilities as well as their duplicity might be ill advised. Yemen in that regard will prove a good test both for the Iranians and for Trump.
Undoubtedly, there are a couple of sharp brains in the new administration (well, at least one), albeit some of their thinking on Iran may still be a legacy from past experiences in Iraq, not necessarily helpful in the present days. Flynn, Mattis, but also other senior personnel like Rayburn and Harvey seem convinced of the Iranian "uber"-influence in the US military's failure in Iraq. How much of their resentment about US casualties at the hands of Iranian proxies or IRGC members plays into their current posture is difficult to assess.There certainly is a subjective, emotional component to it, but there are also tangible indicators to back-up their claims.
Long term Iranian efforts
Put in simple terms, the Iranians have now committed to not developping any nuclear arsenal. There is strong reason to believe they will abide by those rules, considering that they would have much more to lose than to gain if they decided otherwise. Additionally, they have a much easier option at hand, one that offers nearly as many guarantees as a nuclear device pointed at Washington, Riyadh or Tel Aviv for that matter.
For a number of years, the Iranians have systematically extended their area of influence in the Middle-East, way beyond anything they had managed to achieve since the days of emperor Darius III (roughly 330 B.C.). Theirs is not an empire anymore, not in the traditional sense, but an "empire by proxies". In an painstaking effort that took them several decades, they managed to establish a strong foothold in Lebanon, through Hezbollah, and in Gaza, through Hamas. Both organisations have a domestic agenda but also work as force projection tools of Iranian foreign policy towards Israel in particular.
During the US intervention in Iraq, Iranian agents had a field day infiltrating various levels of government, setting up sectarian armed groups and parties that were friendly to their interests, while at the same time making sure American forces got bogged down in the fight against various factions of Sunni insurgents, among them the predecessor group to Baghdadi's "Islamic State". Finally, in Bashar Al-Assad's Syria, they managed to cultivate a client State that had no allies left after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Yemen's Houthis fit into this picture as something intermediary between a proxy militia and a client State. Again, it needs to be stressed that the Houthis are by no means an Iranian pawn, but they cannot dismiss the help that Tehran is offering them. Iran also made similar moves towards the Shia majority of Bahraïn and has extended an olive branch to Oman, the only GCC country that is not participating in Saudi intervention in Yemen.
The "choke point" strategy
These Iranian efforts however are not random. They follow a long term logic and rationale that is fully apparent in Yemen as well. Short of launching a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead against any enemy force threatening vital Iranian interests, what is the next best thing Tehran could do ? Well, for one thing, they might interrupt international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, as they have threatened to do time and again ever since the mid-1980s.
They certainly do have the ability to do so temporarily, and in particular they could interdict transit of oil and gas tankers for a period long enough to send the global economy into deep recession. That they would finally be on the losing end of such a move does not make a difference, because their main foe in the region, i.e. the Saudis, would probably not be able to recover from such a disaster. The US too would be seriously affected, either directly (through effects on the American economy itself) or indirectly (through the impact on US' main trading partners in Europe and the Far East).
Iranian strategists realized however that holding the key to the Hormuz "choke point" might not be enough to have a dissuasive effect on their adversaries. Saudi-Arabia in particular has access to the Red Sea and manages to ship a significant part of its oil production through the Yanbu port infrastructure there. To choke off the Saudis, the Iranians needed to get a hold either of the pipelines that carried Saudi and Gulf oil to its recipients in the West and Far East, or they needed to be in a position where they interrupt shipping routes used to carry those fuels to the aforementioned recipients.
Looking at a map of the wider Middle-East, it appears the Iranians have managed just that, or almost. Their grip on the Strait of Hormuz is as strong as ever, at least they are still in a position to temporarily check any effort of the US forces to break it. They also improved their ballistic missile capabilities and could therefore target Saudi oil installations at Abqaiq or Ras Tanura for example, or even the Fifth Fleet HQ in Bahraïn. They also have control over Iraqi militias and parts of the government, which allows them to interdict any Saudi oil from transiting through Iraq if they wished to do so. As mentioned above, they can count on Hezbollah in Lebanon and have made sure Assad's government will remain in power for as long as the conflict in Syria goes on.
To be continued: part (2).