April 19, 2024

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Because the Houthis now outperform Hamas and Hezbollah in “value”.

Because the Houthis now outperform Hamas and Hezbollah in “value”.

Written by Bobby Ghosh

The IRIS Alborz, the pride of the Iranian Navy, is not much of a “warship.” The frigate entered service in 1971: decades of sanctions forced Iran to equip it with improvised combat systems, far less powerful than the firepower of similar ships in major navies around the world.

However, the ship serves important symbolic purposes. It is a reminder that the Islamic Republic is a maritime state, if not a superpower. Its armament, however limited, also highlights Iran's domestic weapons-making capabilities. As the ship sails from the port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, it shows not so much the strength of the Alborz as it shows Tehran's disdain for Iran's rivals.

Currently, the ship performs symbolic functions on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, as reassurance and recognition of a key ally: Yemen's Houthi rebels, who are attacking international shipping in one of the world's most important sea lanes. They also fired rockets toward Israel, in support of another Iranian ally, Hamas.

Alborz will not provide them much protection from the US-led naval flotilla known as Operation Prosperity Guardian, which has intercepted Houthi missiles and drones, as well as sinking some of their ships. But Tehran is sending a signal to the rebels that they are not alone.

Agent network

For Iran, this is an unusually open offer of military support for one of its vast networks of allies and proxies in the Middle East. Tehran usually uses secret means to train, finance, and arm groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. In public, the role of Iran's leaders is limited to rhetorical encouragement and endorsement of actions.

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This is what happened with the Houthis. Tehran had developed its relations with the rebels long before they appeared on the international scene nearly 10 years ago, when they seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and overthrew the country's internationally recognized government. Since then, Iran has provided the Houthis with increasingly sophisticated missiles and drones, as well as the means to produce them domestically.

This support enabled the rebels to defeat the Saudi-led Arab coalition that was trying to restore the Yemeni government in exile. Tehran's weapons have also allowed the Houthis to strike deep into Saudi Arabia, with the 2019 attacks on the kingdom's oil infrastructure being the most dramatic. The Saudis were eventually forced to demand peace.

All the while, Iran claimed that the Houthis were acting alone. Only once, in the spring of 2015, did it send a naval fleet — led by Albers, as now — to try to break the blockade of Yemeni ports by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But after the United States sent an aircraft carrier to intercept the fleet, the Iranians quietly withdrew. At the time, the Houthis were one of Tehran's least important proxies, after Hezbollah or Hamas. The situation was not worth risking conflict with the United States.

He promotes

Iran's more determined challenge to the West, this time by the Houthis, reflects their rise to the upper echelon of allies. It is a reward for humiliating one of the Iranian regime's arch enemies, Saudi Arabia, as well as a tribute to its usefulness in the fight against another country, Israel.

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The promotion the Houthis are receiving comes at an appropriate time for Tehran. Hamas, Iran's main “spear” against Israel, has been severely weakened by the war in Gaza. Iran is reluctant to deploy Hezbollah on the battlefield, partly due to fear of wearing down its oldest and most powerful “client.”

Supporting the Houthis makes more sense for Iran because they could prove far more destructive than any other proxy — as they have just proven by effectively diverting global commercial shipping from a sea lane that accounts for 12 percent of global trade.

While Hezbollah's main interest in Tehran is primarily to protect Iranian interests in Lebanon and Syria, and on the other hand, Hamas's main goal is to kill Israelis, the Houthis can inflict economic damage on Iran's closest enemies and the wider world, and by inflicting economic damage on Iran's closest enemies. And the wider world. Extension, in the USA.

Unique position

One thing that supports the Iranian argument is that the Houthis operate with fewer restrictions than any other proxies. In contrast to Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Yemeni rebels do not have to manage complex, multi-ethnic and multi-religious local politics. Unlike Hamas, it is far removed from the IDF. They rule a large country, with lots of remote areas from which Iranian missiles can be launched. Its proximity to some of the world's major energy sources also enhances the potential threat it poses.

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So, no one should be surprised if the Houthis rise in Iran's esteem and eventually catch up with, and perhaps surpass, Hezbollah. This possibility terrifies Yemen's Arab neighbors. It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not dare to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian.

For the wider world, responding to the growing Houthi threat will require much more than just naval fleets in the Red Sea. Instead of simply responding to provocations by the rebels and their bosses in Tehran, the United States and its allies will need to impose limits on their ability to inflict damage (see the recommendations of my Bloomberg Opinion colleague, Admiral James Stavridis), to strengthen their local rivals. .

The latter includes forces loyal to the government in exile and armed elements around Aden known as the Southern Movement. Doing so would present challenges, such as the uncomfortable fact that the Southern Movement seeks to secede from Yemen and that the government in exile is made up of corrupt and incompetent politicians.

Given his age and condition, Albers' growth will likely be short. It has already achieved its symbolic purposes. However, long after the frigate returns to Bandar Abbas, Iran and its newly modernized ally in Yemen will pose a threat to the Red Sea.

Performance – Editing – Text Selection (2019-2024): J.D. Pavlopoulos