Attacks in recent weeks by Yemen’s Houthis on ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb strait have increased calls in Washington for a forceful US military response directed at Iranian proxies – and at Iran itself.
This follows Sen. Tom Cotton’s proposal for ‘massive retaliation’ against Iranians operating in Iraq and Syria, and presidential candidate Tim Scott advocating ‘attacking Iran, not just warehouses in Syria’ during Republican debates.
It’s true that Iranian money, weapons and training have allowed the Houthis and other Tehran-supported militias in the region to launch sophisticated attacks against US personnel and interests in Iraq, Syria, the Red Sea, and elsewhere.
But calls for a kinetic response against Iran imply that US deterrence is woefully inadequate. It seems more accurate to say it has been weakened, but not fatally.
Core US interests
America’s core Middle East interests start with maintaining freedom of commerce and navigation in a region that is replete with strategic natural resources and home to critical transit points in global shipping and trade.
The Houthi attacks have challenged that core interest. War risk insurance premiums have risen for trade routes in the Red Sea, and so has the cost of shipping.
But the threat does not represent a significant crisis, on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic for example, nor will it given the limited capabilities of the Houthis. The US has assembled an international maritime coalition to stabilize the situation, killed 10 Houthi fighters and sunk three of their boats. In short, the Houthi threat should be taken seriously, but there is no need to panic or overreact.
Tehran occasionally threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 21 per cent of the world’s crude oil passes, but such a move would undermine its own economic interests and damage relations with important partners such as China. It would also be hard to prevent shipping passing through the strait when modern cargo vessels are so massive and difficult to disable.
An effective regional threat
Over the years, Iran has done reasonably well in its efforts to undermine US interests across the region through its proxies.
Houthi forces oversee much of northern Yemen and other big population centers. In Iraq, Shiite militias control politics and resources. In Syria, the al-Assad regime is essentially an Iranian client. And in Lebanon and Palestine, Hezbollah, and Hamas clash directly with Israel.
Iran also has coerced, intimidated, and sometimes attacked key US partners – such as in September 2019, when Saudi energy infrastructure was struck by a swarm of drones and missiles.
Iran leverages its hostility to try to drive a wedge between Washington and its partners. On some level, it has succeeded, exploiting concerns about limited US responses to Iranian aggression: both the Saudis and the Emiratis have sought to appease Tehran through normalization agreements.
Iran’s record of violence against US troops is remarkable, too. Iranian-backed militias are thought to have killed more than 600 American troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom. More recently, pro-Iranian forces killed an American contractor in Syria and another one in Kirkuk in drone and rocket attacks.
Finally, Iran has managed, through the Hamas attacks of 7 October, to derail what could have been a transformational event for the Middle East – a US-brokered normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
These notable achievements notwithstanding, Washington’s core interests in the Middle East are not seriously harmed. Iran has failed to divorce Washington from any of its Arab partners. Tensions between them are real, but for all the concerns and complaints about US policy from Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, both wish to improve, not cut, relations with the US.
Neither has Iran achieved regional hegemony. US deterrence, combined with local resistance to Tehran’s oppressive, sectarian model has prevented Iran from establishing regional dominance.
Turkey, a Sunni stronghold, will also continue to check Iranian influence through diplomacy, while Israel confronts Iranian proxies with military force.
The real Iranian bomb
None of this means that Iran’s regional militias are of marginal consequence. They are a strategic problem that will only grow if not properly treated. Hamas’s historic attack is just the latest proof.
Arab partners have warned Washington about the cancer of these proxies for years. They were devastated to learn that Washington did not even discuss this issue with Tehran during negotiations that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. For them, the real Iranian bomb is the proxies, not the atomic weapon.
If the US does not apply more pressure on Iran to reign in its proxies, regional partners may further distance themselves or pursue courses of action that are detrimental to US interests.
Perceived weakness by the US could lead Israel to strike Iran following another attack like 7 October. That would force the US to enter a direct fight with Iran, which is precisely what it has always sought to avoid.
Arab powers, meanwhile, could further appease Iran, cultivate stronger ties with China and Russia, and start to limit or deny access to the US – a major problem when US Middle East military infrastructure depends on the consent of Arab governments.
Tackling Iran’s regional challenge must be done in partnership. Washington does not have the knowledge, tools, or willingness to act alone.
America’s primary responsibility should be regaining the trust of its regional partners by ensuring their physical security – preventing Iranian drones and missiles hitting civilian targets and critical infrastructure. Such attacks, along with deadly strikes against US troops, would justify a more punishing military response by Washington.