Iranian backed Houthi rebels are targeting US navy vessels in the straight of Bab-el-Mandeh
Today’s world is beset by numerous conflicts that have the potential to escalate into serious wars involving regional and even international powers. Most people, at least those who pay attention to world events, are probably preoccupied with the Ukrainian and Syrian civil wars, particularly with the latter, where currently the bloody battle of Aleppo is raging. While every day the Western media keeps telling us about the horrors of Aleppo and the barbarism of the Assad regime and his Russian backers, there are other situations in the Middle East which are also very serious, yet little mentioned.
One such situation is the civil war in Yemen. While this conflict is a rather muddled one with numerous antagonistic participants (Houthi, Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and anti-rebel and pro-rebel government forces), the gist of the conflict can be summarized as Shiite Houthi rebels allied to government forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh versus Sunni government forces loyal another former President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.1
The latter are also directly and overtly backed by Saudi Arabia, who in March of 2015 started their military intervention in the conflict which continues to this day. The Saudi intervention, which they have named operations Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope, involves airstrikes, a naval blockade of Houthi controlled territory and reportedly the deployment of special forces troops.
The Houthis are also being backed by their own foreign patron, Iran. This support is much more covert than Saudi Arabia’s. Iran is providing the Houthis with weapons, supplies, money and military advisers. There have also been unverified reports that Qassem Soleimani visited Yemen to help coordinate rebel operations.2
With the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Yemeni civil war is much more than a parochial conflict of squabbling domestic groups in Yemen, but instead is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In effect the Yemeni civil war is a manifestation of the larger Sunni-Shiite conflict, akin to what is occurring in Syria.
The reason Iran is interested in Yemen, beyond their desire to support their Shiite brethren, is due to the country’s strategic position. The Muslim holy site of Mecca, where the Kabba is located and the destination of the required Hajj pilgrimage, is only ~700 kilometers northwest from Yemen. If Iran can assume control of Yemen through their Houthi proxies, then they will be able to threaten Mecca, which would well be in range of ballistic missiles, such as the Scud-D, based in Yemen.
If one thinks I am speculating wildly when I postulate that Iran wants to take out or conquer Mecca, think again. In April of 2015 Senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Javadi Amoli stated (emphasis mine):3
“according to exegesis, the custodianship of the land of revelation [Mecca and Medina] should be handed to men of piety; the custodian of Ka’ba should be a pious man; “Its custodians are only the Godwary” (8:34) … The current Saudi custodians however are the decedents of those who turned it to a house of idols and indulged themselves in drunken revelry; those were the grand-grand fathers of the current custodians, whom lost in gambling the custodianship or traded it for few wineskins. … The Islamic nations should not wait for concrete action by their governments; rather, they should take the matter into their own hands, which would be properly titled ‘the Greater Striving’.”
Basically Amoli is saying that Saudi Arabia is not morally fit to oversee Mecca and that other more worthy Islamic nations (i.e. Iran) should be in charge of the holy site. Furthermore the Houthis themselves have threatened to capture Mecca. In March of 2015 just days before he was assassinated, a senior Houthi leader Abdul-Karim al-Khiwani said “We will circle the Ka’bah next Hajj in Makkah [Mecca] as conquerors.”4 Then in September of this year, Houthi forces launched Scud missiles at King Fadh air base in Saudi Arabia, which is only 80 kilometers east of Mecca.5 On October 9 another such attack occurred against the air base.6 So it is not so far fetched to suggest that the Iranians or Houthis have designs on Mecca.
The other reason why Iran wants to control Yemen, is that doing so would allow her to control or at least disrupt maritime traffic traveling through the strategically important straight of Bab el-Mandeb. It is estimated that for 2013 3.8 million barrels per day of oil was shipped through the straights.7 This amounts to ~5% of the worlds total oil production and about ~9% of the world’s oil shipped by sea. Iran already can disrupt another strategically important maritime choke point, the Straight of Hormuz, through which ~20% of the world’s oil passes (~35% of the world’s oil shipped by sea).8 Thus if Iran can gain ‘control’ of Yemen and by extension Bab el-Mandeb, then it will be capable of disrupting a significant chunk of the world’s oil, not to mention a decent portion of other maritime commercial traffic.
It appears that the Houthis, with Iran’s support, are already targeting vessels in the waters around Bab el-Mandeb. It started on October 1 when Houthi rebels launched a C-802 anti-ship missile which struck and seriously damaged an UAE fast transport boat.9 In response the US deployed two guided missile destroyers (the Mason and Nitze) and an amphibious transport dock (the Ponce). On October 9 the Houthi rebels launched their C-802 missiles at the US vessels, which were forced to employ defensive countermeasures and fire anti-missile missiles.6 Then on October 13 the USS Nitze launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and destroyed three radar stations on the Yemeni coast which were used to acquired targets for and guide the C-802 missiles.
It is interesting, that the C-802 anti-ship missiles are Chinese made, and were provided to the Houthis via Iran. According to DEBKAfile the radar stations which were destroyed by US Tomahawk cruise missiles were built and operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). It seems quite likely that Iran approved of the missile attack on the US vessels, and maybe even instigated it.
Hopefully the US destruction of the Yemeni radar installations will preclude the Houthis from launching more C-802 missile attacks on vessels traveling near the coastal waters of Yemen. Whether this is in fact the case remains to be seen. If the Houthis are able to launch more such attacks then the situation could easily escalate, especially in the light of Iran dispatching warships to the Gulf of Aden in response to the US bombings in Yemen.10 One wonders what will happen if a US military vessel gets struck and seriously damaged by a C-802 missile, especially given the fact Iran would most likely be involved in such an action? What would happen if an oil tanker is sunk? Most likely the price of crude oil would jump, possibly skyrocket.
This whole episode illustrates the Obama administration’s ineffectiveness in dealing with Iran. We were told that the Iranian nuclear deal with Iran would make the Middle East a safer place. However, such an outcome has not occurred, instead it appears the region is becoming more unstable. Iran has not curtailed its meddling in other Middle Eastern countries and based on the recent incidents in the straight of Bab el-Mandeb they have appeared to have increased their belligerence towards the US. Regardless of Obama’s ineptitude, the on goings in Yemen provide us with another world hotspot that needs to be heeded, one which could easily erupt into a much more serious conflict or have significant economic ramifications.