The first modern navies were built in the age of empires to project imperial ambition, secure seaborne trade and scare off pirates. Today, as Houthi rebels fire off rockets and drones against commercial ships trying to make the passage from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the maritime mission seems rather similar. On the face of it, the Houthis are acting like old-fashioned pirates and the insurgent power of Iran has ensured that the tribesmen have the firepower they need to give the United States a bloody nose.
The cynical calculation of the US security community is that the Red Sea spat will soon be settled by deploying the customary tactics of bomb or bribe. Either the US will have to bomb Houthi bases along the Yemeni coastline, depleting its drone and missile armouries, or the Houthis will be bought off. But that too is old-fashioned thinking. It underestimates the depth of strategic planning that has been going on in Tehran.
What is happening is the unfolding of a small war with global implications. A war that challenges America’s ability to fight at sea against a guerrilla force whose ultimate aim, steered by Iran, is to drive the US out of the Middle East. And the US is not prepared for it. Houthi drones costing as little as $2,000 are being shot down by American missiles that can cost up to $2 million each. Sooner rather than later, destroyers will have to return to a US weapons pier to reload their 90 or more missile tubes. That doesn’t only cost money, it leaves aircraft carrier groups exposed when their protecting warships peel off.
The American calculation for now is that it is worth putting up with the expense. If a single civilian container ship is holed and loses its cargo, the bill will be higher. If a western warship is disabled, American military might will be called into question around the world. The US will not be able to live up to its self-proclaimed aim to protect the freedom of navigation on trade routes.
It’s not only the Red Sea: there are a meaty handful of narrow chokepoints, among them the Turkish strait linking the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, the Strait of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, the Malaccan straits that join the Persian Gulf to Asian destinations, the contested Taiwan strait and the Panama Canal connecting Asia and the West, which is currently hit by drought.
If the Suez Canal and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait are blocked for much longer there will be serious supply chain disruption, oil and LNG tankers will take at least a week longer to reach Europe, container traffic will be even more exposed. Prices will go up, inflation targets will be missed, there will be global shortages. Insurance premiums are soaring. The already precarious Egyptian economy will suffer from the loss of transit fees through the canal. No surprise, then, that Ismail Haniyeh, the top political leader of Hamas, chose this moment to visit Cairo, where he has few friends. The rationale: an increasingly desperate Egypt should try harder to push for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
Houthi drone pilots have been enlisted, then, to raise the stakes. Iran is creating a pincer movement, with Hezbollah to the north, the Houthis to the south, the Revolutionary Guard in Syria — one of its senior advisers was killed in an apparent Israeli airstrike outside Damascus on Monday. Hezbollah is at the moment little more than an irritant for the Israeli forces. That could change quickly but Iran may want to hold Hezbollah, with its large battle-trained army, in reserve for now — Iran’s safety cushion should it come under direct attack.
The Houthis, who pioneered drone swarming with a 2019 attack on Saudi oil installations, bring three attributes to Iran’s proxy war: a gift for asymmetric warfare; the fact that they are Zaydi Shias and hence trusted in Tehran in a way that Sunni Hamas is not; and they have shown over an eight-year conflict against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that they can stand their ground.
Iran often denies that the Houthis are their proxy, Tehran’s default position on all of its foreign legions. Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Iran and the Houthis cannot be separated, though they still have some autonomy. The Houthis, he says, are “a kind of non-nuclear North Korea — insular, aggressive, a well-armed player hostile to the US and sitting on key geography”.
It is intelligence from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that alerts the Houthis to whether a targeted vessel has Israeli links. The ownership trail of vessels is so complex that it requires savvy spooks to work it out. That’s Iran’s work. So too is the organisation and kitting out of spy dhows. The Houthis’ known missile base is close to Sanaa in Yemen, some 1,800km from the Israeli port of Eilat. Missiles — all intercepted — have been soaring towards and close to Eilat since October 19. So what weapon could fly that far? Pictures show something that looks very like an Iranian Ghadr ballistic missile, maximum range 1,950km.
Will the Iranians step in to improve Houthi targeting by modifying navigation systems? Will they provide electro-optical seeker heads for the suicide drones provided by Tehran? According to western assessments, it looks that way. Iran is stoking up a three-front war against Israel and its protectors. American hardliners such as John Bolton, formerly of the Trump administration, say western restraint towards Iran is being read there as a sign of America’s civilisational decline. I fear he may be right.