Iran riding 'uncomfortable wave' in wake of US-UK attacks on Houthis

Former ambassador to Yemen, Edmund Fitton-Brown, tells The National Iran may have misgivings over Houthi attacks in Red Sea that could lead to escalation in the region

A Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 takes off to carry out air strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen, from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, Monday, January 22, 2024. Ministry of Defence via AP
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Houthi attacks on international shipping have seen Iran ride an “uncomfortable wave” that America is attempting to contain, the former British ambassador to Yemen has told The National in the wake of strikes on military sites in the country.

With the second wave of joint US and UK attacks on multiple Houthi targets in Yemen on Tuesday, Edmund Fitton-Brown also warned of the risk of “miscalculation”, escalating to war between Tehran and Washington.

“The one thing is absolutely clear as the Houthi attacks won't stop but the strategic objective is to give shipping confidence that it can safely pass through the Red Sea,” he said. “This operation will be judged on whether that confidence is re-established or not.”

The US and UK struck eight Houthi military sites in Yemen on Monday in the latest attempt to stop the Iran-backed rebel group from launching attacks on Red Sea shipping.

A barrage of about 30 Tomahawk land-attack missiles, precision-guided munitions and drone strikes hit Houthi weapons-storage facilities and missiles.

British fighter jets dropped precision-guided bombs on two sites near a Sanaa airfield, in what was the UK's second involvement in anti-Houthi strikes.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned the Houthis that if the attacks continued “the United Kingdom will not hesitate to respond again in self-defence”.

He also told parliament: “I want to be very clear, we are not seeking a confrontation.” Britain plans to announce new sanctions targeting Houthi financing in the coming days, he said.

A senior US military official said: “We definitely feel that the strikes we have taken have removed significant Houthi capability,” adding that the targeting was “specific” and designed to avoid the risk of civilian casualties. Monday's military action was the eighth US-led strike on the Houthi rebels.

The Houthis said the latest strikes “will not go without any response or punishment.”

Not deterred

But Mr Fitton-Brown, who served as ambassador to Yemen from 2015 to 2017, warned that the escalating strikes were unlikely to have a substantial impact on Houthi shipping attacks.

“If we want to deter the Houthis that's not easy as they're not a very deter-able group,” he said. “Their view is ‘you can't ignore us, we can make your life difficult, if the world forgets about us we won't let it'.

“They are wedded to keeping face, that ‘we are indomitable fighters’, so the idea of them saying, ‘That hurt, let’s not do it again’ is not going to happen.”

The Houthis have no real ideology other than “hatred of the West and Israel, alongside a vicious brand of religious extremism”, he said.

However, he argued that the group may have now understood that they have “clearly bumped up against red lines” and might reduce the intensity of their attacks, which as well as disrupting shipping routes have seriously affected Egypt’s foreign currency revenue from Suez Canal tolls.

However, he said the Houthis “don't care about any pain that they cause to fellow Arabs”.

Iran control

While Iran had supplied the Houthis with arms and training it still did not have full control over the group, Mr Fitton-Brown suggests.

“It’s a curious dynamic between the Houthis and the Iranians. It's definitely not Tehran issuing instructions and the Houthis carrying them out,” said the former diplomat.

“It's more the Houthis doing what they want to do and receiving Iranian assistance. So Iran is riding a slightly uncomfortable wave.”

This meant that Iran likely had “misgivings” about the attacks because “they don't necessarily want an escalation with the US”.

“The Iranians are quite good at reading clear signals and if they wanted to escalate, I would expect to see a significant change in the tempo of Hezbollah attacks into northern Israel,” he said.

However, a dangerous flashpoint between the countries could come over the Iranian spy ship Behshad, which reportedly monitors movements in the southern Red Sea but temporarily departed the area when the first strikes occurred on 11 January.

“There is the potential for the Behshad to get caught up in the US response if it's actively directing attacks that the US is trying to prevent. Then it will become a target,” said Mr Fitton-Brown, who is now senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project.

“Washington or London will be saying to the Iranians, 'this ship has put itself in the role of being a combatant against our forces, you might want to think about that'.”

Meticulously proportionate

Because the US and British response had “been so meticulously proportionate” it was clear that the western powers were “sending the message, not just to the Houthis, but to the Iranians” that the attacks “will not be tolerated”.

But Tehran could also escalate the crisis if one of the attacks by Iran-sponsored militia on an American base in Iraq resulted in multiple casualties.

“That escalation would be very dangerous,” said Mr Fitton Brown, who for five years led the UN’s team responsible for sanctions on ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Clear message

The latest round of UK and allied strikes against Houthi targets was designed to “send the clearest possible message” to the rebels that attacks on cargo ships are “unacceptable”, the UK Foreign Secretary said.

David Cameron said UK armed forces will “continue to degrade” the Houthis’ ability to carry out attacks as long as their “completely indiscriminate” campaign of harassment in the Middle East continues.

Lord Cameron said the UK had renewed its military action due to attacks on cargo ships continuing.

The US military confirmed the latest strikes were against eight targets.

The Ministry of Defence said four Royal Air Force Typhoons and a pair of Voyager tankers were involved in the latest action.

The department said several targets were hit at two military sites near the Sanaa airfield in Yemen.

Mr Sunak and US President Joe Biden spoke on Monday evening, with a Downing Street readout stating that the two leaders agreed to “continue efforts alongside international partners to deter and disrupt” attacks by the Houthis.

A joint statement issued by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK and the US described the strikes as “proportionate and necessary”.

The statement said the mission targeted a Houthi underground storage site as well as locations linked to the group’s missile and air surveillance capabilities.

Despite the western intervention, ships have continued to be targeted along the major global trade route which provides access to the Suez Canal, a thoroughfare that serves 15 per cent of world shipping.

International freight companies have been forced to reroute cargo vessels around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, resulting in longer and more costly journeys.

US-led strikes on the Houthis so far:

January 11: The US and Britain launch the first air strikes on Houthi military sites across Yemen, pledging to protect the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. They struck radar systems, air defence systems, and storage and launch sites for attack drones, cruise missiles and other rockets, US Central Command said.

January 13: US forces conduct a strike against a Houthi radar site in Yemen. This strike was conducted by the USS Carney using Tomahawk land attack missiles.

January 16: US forces destroy four Houthi missile launchers in Yemen. The launchers were considered to be an imminent threat to commercial and US military vessels in the area.

January 17: US military forces strike 14 Houthi missiles that had been primed to fire on commercial and US naval shipping in the Red Sea, Centcom said.

January 18: US fighter jets conduct a fifth strike on Houthi targets, this time hitting two anti-ship missiles that were being prepared for launch towards the Red Sea.

January 19: US forces conduct three “self-defence strikes” against Houthi targets.

January 20: US forces carry out air strikes on a Houthi anti-ship missile ready to be used against commercial vessels and US Navy ships in the Gulf of Aden.

January 22: US and Britain strike eight Houthi targets in Yemen.

Updated: January 23, 2024, 5:29 PM