Fridays are holy days of rest in the Middle East, but today the region braces itself for the awful possibility of broader conflict. Following repeated attacks on their warships, the United States and the United Kingdom have finally hit back at the Houthis, a Yemeni militia that holds power in the capital city of Sanaa and is recognized as the official Yemeni government by its main sponsor, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The attacks come after weeks of warning and a day after a United Nations Security Council resolution asked the Houthis to stop their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The recent skirmish has now heightened a fear that has preoccupied Middle Easterners since Hamas’s gruesome attacks on October 7 ushered in a new war with Israel: Could the war spread to an all-out conflagration involving Hamas’s main backer, Iran?
The leadership of the Islamic Republic has spent the past few months in a risky dance. On one hand, it affirms its full support for Hamas and reiterates its demand for the destruction of Israel. On the other, it works hard to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel or the United States, knowing full well that it might not survive such a clash. For years, the Iranian regime thought that it had perfected this dance. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, burnished a reputation as a shrewd strategist for his policy of “strategic patience”—dodging direct conflict with the U.S. or Israel while steadily improving the capabilities of the Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, and Yemeni militias that together form the Tehran-led Axis of Resistance.
But the past few years have seen Khamenei’s bluffs called several times. The United States killed the Iranian regime’s foremost military hero and commander of its Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. Khamenei promised a “harsh revenge” that never materialized. Meanwhile, Israel has repeatedly operated on Iranian territory and has helped kill axis leaders in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Many of the Iranian leader’s most ardent champions now openly criticize him as too cautious. From Tehran to Baghdad, such supporters are clamoring to be sent to Gaza to confront Israel directly. Yet even Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the jewel in the crown of Tehran’s axis, has been forced to give a very limited response to Israel. The much-anticipated speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, have become an object of ridicule in the past few months for combining harsh rhetoric with a lack of any concrete action. The axis supporters will now surely want a response to the attacks on Yemen. What can Tehran do?
The regime has walked itself into this deadly dilemma. An entire generation of axis fighters has been brought up in Iran’s unique brand of Islamism, with its emphasis on the Islamic Republic as the headquarters of a multinational army that will supposedly one day bring about the downfall of Israel. At the same time, the Iranian regime has never wanted its shadow war with Israel and the United States to turn into the real thing—hence its humiliating inactivity in the face of the blows it has received. The Iranian regime’s arming, equipping, financing, and training of the militias have ensured their support. But it also risks dragging the country and the region into an all-out war.
Under Khamenei, Iran has attempted to hold its people apart from the international integration they mostly desire while still meeting the country’s basic economic needs. As the Iranian American analyst Karim Sadjadpour once said, Khamenei wants Iran to be “neither North Korea nor Dubai.” But as the embers of war glow in the region, this gambit becomes less and less tenable. Khamenei knows how unpopular his regime is and that its regional adventures have very little domestic support. Western sanctions have severely degraded the Iranian economy, destroying the country’s middle class. Life is much worse in Iran today than it was, say, 20 years ago, in just about every imaginable way. Things are also rough in the countries where axis forces hold sway: Syria is split up, Lebanon is bankrupt, Iraq faces its own domestic crises, and Yemen is desperately poor. These are not exactly the forces you can take to a war with the West.
As Israel’s war on Gaza continues piling up civilian casualties, Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have gained some support among the Arab masses and beyond—even though those actually targeted are not Israelis but international maritime merchants. The militia initially said that it was targeting ships going to Israel but has, in practice, fired indiscriminately at commercial ships, even those with no ties to Israel. On December 30, it attacked Maersk Hangzhou, a Danish-owned and Singapore-flagged commercial container. The attacks have already had a terrible effect, leading Maersk and several other international shipping companies to avoid the Red Sea and take South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope route, which is at least a week longer and much more expensive. Prices are then off-loaded to ordinary customers. Masoud Daneshmand, a board member of Iran’s own association of transportation companies, recently complained that maritime shipping costs have increased by 50 percent, putting further pressure on the country’s fragile economy. One can only imagine what a full-on war would do to the economies of the region.
Such calculations perhaps explain why Russia and China, on Wednesday, refused to veto the Security Council resolution that paved the way for the attacks on Yemen. A day before the vote, Iran’s top diplomat, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, complained to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the resolution, which the U.S. and Japan had jointly submitted. Yet neither Moscow nor Beijing came to Tehran’s rescue by vetoing the resolution. Instead they abstained, alongside Algeria and Mozambique.
If Tehran goes by its usual playbook, it will likely try to restrain the Houthis and avoid a direct clash. Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian foreign minister, spoke with a leading Houthi figure in Tehran on January 1. The pro-Houthi media in Iran and Yemen reported that the meeting’s purpose was to confer lavish praise on the militia for standing up to Israel. But many experts believe that Amirabdollahian might instead have warned the Yemenis to tone it down. The foreign minister had received a stern phone call from his British counterpart, David Cameron, just the day before.
But if Tehran did indeed send such a message, the Houthis ignored it, and kept on with their attacks. On Tuesday, they fired 21 missiles and drones at U.S. and U.K. warships.
The Houthis have a tradition of fierce independence, despite the militia’s overall reliance on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its professed loyalty to Khamenei as the ultimate leader of the resistance. As a result, Tehran may be faced with a tough question: How much pressure is it willing to put on the Houthis to get them to stand down?
When the Houthis seized Sanaa in September 2014, their victory was hailed as a singular achievement for the IRGC and its chief of external operations, Soleimani, who had cultivated the Yemeni Shia militia and helped turn it into a disciplined and militarily sophisticated force. Tehran now had a powerful ally on the Arabian Peninsula, right next to its old foe, Saudi Arabia. The Houthis kept power despite close to a decade of a civil war and extensive interventions by Riyadh and other Arab countries: Soleimani’s bet on them seemed to have paid off. But as Iran finds itself threatened with a war it has long tried to avoid, many there will rightly worry about the consequences of this relationship.