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In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, listens to Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for the Yemen Houthis rebels during their meeting at his residence in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. The Iran-backed Houthis overran Sanaa in 2014. The Saudi-led coalition, backing Yemen's internationally recognized government, has been at war with the rebels, known as Houthis, since 2015, and has imposed a blockade on ports that supply Houthi-controlled areas. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Iran’s “Escalation and De-escalation Strategy” Toward Conflict in the Red Sea

The ongoing conflict between the Houthis and the West in the Red Sea has persuaded many to see the current hostilities as another proxy war between Iran and the United States. This is mostly due to Iran playing the role of the Houthis’ main military backer and a strong ideological influence, convincing many that attacks in the Red Sea by the Houthis would not take place without Tehran’s permission. However, Iran has consistently rejected such claims, arguing that despite the close ties between the Houthis and Iran, the Shia tribe is an independent entity and makes its decisions on its own. Indeed, given Iran’s attempts to distance itself from the Houthis’ actions in the Bab el-Mandeb, Tehran’s real aims with regard to Yemen and the Red Sea remain an open—and intensely disputed—question.

Iran’s Strategic Posture

To understand what Iran wants in the Red Sea, one must first establish what it does not want. In spite of its revolutionary rhetoric, Tehran is fundamentally risk-averse, and the last thing on the Islamic Republic’s wish list is an asymmetric war with the United States that could severely endanger the regime’s survival. Iran also clearly has an interest in the Houthis’ survival as a political force in the region; it has invested significant time and resources to assist them in coming to power in Yemen, and the Houthis have reciprocated by threatening Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional rival.

In September 2019, for instance, the Houthis launched a successful attack against the Abqaiq-Khurais oil facility in Northern Saudi Arabia in March 2019, wiping out five percent of total global oil production and forcing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to curtail their military operations in Yemen. Through this and other attacks, the Houthis have proved their value as a good investment and an important ally for Iran. In this context, it is reasonable to conclude that Iran does not wish the Houthis to be weakened or degraded in the course of the current conflict.

Crucially, in spite of its reluctance to endanger its own security, Iran also seeks to avoid being perceived as indifferent or uninvolved in the ongoing Gaza war. Since the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, Iran’s political identity has been constructed around its role as the vanguard of Islamic resistance against Israel. Iran’s history of establishing Shia proxy militias throughout the Middle East and aligning with other movements with similar goals, including Hamas and the Houthis bars it from remaining detached and limiting its response to mere verbal critiques and political denunciations.

Consequently, Iran is compelled to act in support of Hamas—a mandate that presents a complex challenge for Tehran, given that direct confrontation with Israel contradicts the foundational survivalist principles of its regime. Thus, without the inclination to directly engage, Iran is anticipated to direct its proxies to carry out confrontations on its behalf. This alternative, while ostensibly straightforward, embodies a multifaceted dilemma for Iran.

Fighting Without Fighting

The same logic that dictates Iran’s reluctance to engage directly against Israel similarly necessitates caution in involving Hezbollah, Iran’s largest and most powerful foreign proxy force. Although Hezbollah is almost completely dependent on Iran, it seeks to ensure its continuity and will not recklessly enter a conflict with Israel that threatens its survival. Moreover, Hezbollah’s critical role for Iran as its principal strategic asset in Lebanon, and the risk of losing this group in support of Hamas, further compels caution. Hezbollah’s deep involvement in Syria similarly means that any conflict with Israel could potentially spread there, jeopardizing the Assad regime and undermining nearly a decade of Iranian efforts to sustain Assad.

Iraqi militias also represent an impractical choice for Iran, given existing tensions with the United States that have already compromised their position. Conversely, the Houthis are distinguished by their geographical distance and Israel’s limitations in aerial refueling, making the Houthis relatively insulated from Israeli retaliation. Moreover, while the Houthis play a decisive role in Yemen, they are peripheral to Iran’s overall regional strategy, and a setback for them would not significantly impair the overall structure of Tehran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ stretching from Tehran to Beirut. This makes the Houthis the most viable option for Iran to consider.

Iran’s primary aim in Yemen appears to be to incite tensions in the Red Sea, recognizing that disturbances in a maritime corridor responsible for 15% of global sea trade will exert pressure on Israel’s allies to reduce their support for Israel or nudge Israel towards a ceasefire. A conflict in the Red Sea could also destabilize global oil markets, leading to higher prices—simultaneously a blow to Western oil importers and a boon for Iran, a major exporter. Finally, such a conflict could draw attention away from Iran’s nuclear program, which has achieved record levels of uranium enrichment since the collapse of the JCPOA nuclear accord in 2018.

However, achieving this objective also requires Iran to ensure that tensions in the Red Sea do not become normalized or perceived as a routine global event, leading international markets and trade flows to adapt—as they did in the late 2000s during the heyday of Somali piracy. This consideration leads to Iran’s second objective: the gradual escalation of tension by diversifying the range, scope, and impact of attacks. It should be noted that this strategy risks jeopardizing Iran’s regional ambition of containing conflicts within their local regions: an Iran-sanctioned attack could inflict enough damage to leave the West with no alternative but a severe response, potentially targeting Iranian interests. Indeed, a drone strike on a U.S. base in Jordan in late January led to a harsh U.S. response, killing a senior Iraqi militia commander and leading Tehran to scale back its operations; if the Houthis were able to successfully attack a U.S. Navy ship in the Red Sea, it would likely precipitate a similar American response. To circumvent this scenario, the Houthis must use major attacks sparingly, with the norm being unsophisticated ambushes that are unlikely to succeed but still raise the risks for commercial shipping and increase insurance costs, with knock-on effects for the global economy. Essentially, most attacks should amount to harassment, with only a few capable of causing significant damage, executed periodically.

At this juncture, it appears Iran is employing an “escalation and de-escalation strategy,” which involves measures to increase pressure, intensity, or action levels in a situation, while refraining from steps that could lead to full-scale conflict. This approach aims to incrementally heighten tensions without crossing the threshold into outright war. In doing so, Tehran maintains a delicate balance between advancing its objectives and avoiding direct confrontation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Geopolitics
Country: Iran, Yemen

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Arman Mahmoudian is a lecturer of Russian and Middle Eastern Studies and a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and International affairs at the University of South Florida (USF). He is also a research associate at the USF Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies, where he focuses on Iran’s regional policy and Shia militias in the Middle East. Arman has appeared on Al-Jazeera and the BBC and has been published by Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy, London School of Economics Middle East Center, Atlantic Council, Middle East Eye, Politics Today, New Arab, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Trends Research and Advisory. Follow Arman on Twitter@MahmoudianArman.


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