Behind the Lines: Tremor in Yemen

The targeting of US Navy ships is yet another sign that Iran and its allies are growing increasingly emboldened.

Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Yemeni civil war, in which an Iran-supported Shia militia, the Ansar Allah movement (the ‘Houthis’), is clashing with a Saudi-led coalition supporting the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi, is largely neglected by Western media coverage.
This is unfortunate. Recent events related to Yemen demonstrate the growing confidence and audacity of the Iran-led regional bloc, and its apparent belief that it can with impunity escalate the “rules of the game” to include not only strikes on US proxies, but now also direct attacks on US assets themselves.
On October 9, and again on October 12, the US Navy destroyer USS Mason was operating in the strategically crucial area of the Bab al-Mandeb Straits off the coast of Yemen, when it was targeted by two missiles fired from territory controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The narrow straits connecting the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea are a vital crossing point for ships transporting oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal, and thence to the Mediterranean. They are also Israel’s maritime exit point from the Red Sea.
The USS Mason’s mission was to ensure the continued and unimpeded transition of shipping through the straits. The ship fired its own missiles to intercept the threats and sustained no damage. The Mason was then targeted again on October 12 and possibly again on the 15 (this incident is still under investigation).
The USS Mason, along with two other US Navy ships – the USS Nitze and the USS Ponce – had been deployed to the straits after an earlier attack on a UAE logistics vessel, the HSV Swift, on October 1.
The missile fired, according to a report by the US Naval Institute, was a C-802 antiship missile. It was this type of missile that was launched by the Lebanese Hezbollah on the Israeli ship INS Hanit on July 14, 2006, during the Second Lebanon War.
This Chinese-produced missile was sold for a time by Beijing to Iran. The Iranians reverse engineered it, and now produce a version of their own. The Iranians are the main backers of the Houthis.
The attack came a day after a Saudi air strike on the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital of Sanaa, in which around 140 people were killed.
The Ansar Allah organization, better known as the Houthis, denied responsibility for the launching of the missiles.
The denials, however, followed a statement by the organization’s leader, Abd al Malik al-Houthi, in which he blamed the US for the bombing. Houthi said that “the first and foremost party responsible for the carnage” was the US, adding that “the Saudis are killing Yemenis by means of US weapons and military aircraft. They strike where Americans pinpoint and allow.”
The missile attack also coincided with a Scud missile attack from Houthi-controlled territory on the Saudi city of Taif.
The balance of probabilities given the timing, location of the tactics, and the type of ordnance used points overwhelmingly toward the Iranian backed Ansar Allah as the organization responsible. A senior US official quoted by ABC News said that there was “no doubt” that the Houthis carried out the attack.
The attacks were followed by a US response, which targeted three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory – the first direct US attack against Houthi-controlled targets. The Pentagon then noted that the US would respond “as appropriate” to any further attacks.
The attacks on the USS Mason and its accompanying craft represent a raising of the stakes by the Iranians in the tension surrounding the Yemen war and the Bab al-Mandeb Straits.
The Houthis are not direct proxies of Tehran.
Their relationship is more akin to that of Hamas with Iran rather than that of Hezbollah with its masters in Tehran. That is, Ansar Allah is an organization with its own genuine local roots and agenda, which nevertheless benefits from and relies on Iranian assistance, supplies and training.
The launch of a C-802 anti-ship missile, however, is no simple military exercise of the type generally undertaken by a ragged guerrilla force like the Houthis. It involves a high level of expertise, and the employment of advanced technical means. The targeting of the USS Mason, therefore, may well have constituted an instance of direct Iranian involvement at some level in a military attack on a US ship.
Regardless whether there were direct Iranian fingerprints on the attack, it is extremely unlikely that the Houthis themselves would have decided unilaterally on a very sharp escalation of this kind. Iranian approval for the attacks is thus a near certainty.
What this means is that in the current regional reality, the Iranians and their allies feel sufficiently emboldened to engage in proxy or not-so-proxy military assaults not only on US allies in the region (the Saudis in Yemen), but also on US forces themselves.
Such attacks are an indicator of the extent to which US deterrence has declined in the Middle East. There is a strongly evidenced sense among both friends and foes that any US response to aggression against it will be judicious, restrained, proportionate and brief. A response of this kind hands the initiative to any aggressor able to calculate and absorb it. Renewed deterrence will come only from setting the price higher.
Brigadier-General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy commander of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff, was quoted this week as saying that “the presence of America in the region is a cancerous malign tumor that can only be treated by removing the filthy tumor and the ejection of America from the region.” No ambiguity from that side, then.
Those words aside, it is unlikely that Iran seeks confrontation at the present time.
Tehran is busy fighting for control in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and is not yet close to victory in any of these arenas. But in the meantime, disrupting Red Sea and Persian Gulf commerce and poking a finger in the eye of the supposed custodians of that area’s security is a useful and apparently low-cost method of showing which way the regional winds are blowing.