Tehran’s terror proxy in Yemen targets Israel and international shipping

The Houthis, Tehran’s terror proxy in Yemen, boarded and seized the Israeli-linked Galaxy Leader cargo ship via Mi-171Sh helicopter in the Red Sea on Nov. 19, taking 25 crewmembers captive. This piracy, which follows recent Houthi missile and drone attacks against Israel, is part of a larger strategy by the Islamic Republic of Iran to undermine maritime security and American interests while attempting to encircle, attack, and exhaust Israel.  

The Houthis are a Yemen-based group that instigated a civil war in 2014 when they marched on the country’s capital of Sanaa, forcing the president of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee the following year. In 2015, when Saudi Arabia intervened at the head of a coalition including other Gulf states to reinstate the government, Iran sensed an opportunity and increased its support for the Houthis.

Consistent with Iran’s decades-long regional terror proxy strategy, this support for the Houthis enabled Tehran to threaten and undermine Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates while avoiding direct consequences. Iran smuggled small arms, anti-tank missiles, anti-ship missiles, drones, and even ballistic missiles to the Houthis. Between 2015 and 2021, the Houthis fired over 400 missiles and 850 drones at Saudi Arabia, according to the Riyadh-led coalition. For years, Iranian support served as a primary driver prolonging the war in Yemen, reducing the incentive for the Houthis to negotiate in good faith and fueling the horrible humanitarian crisis.

After years of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and heavy Houthi casualties during the group’s failed assault on the strategic city of Marib, the two sides finally agreed to a truce in April 2022. Riyadh agreed in March 2023 to a Beijing-brokered deal with Tehran that reinforced the fragile ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. The dramatic reduction in fighting and attacks on Saudi territory was good news for Riyadh. But de-escalation in Iran’s proxy war with Saudi Arabia allowed the Houthis to regenerate their combat capabilities. The détente also enabled Tehran and the Houthis to focus on targeting Israel. That, in turn, strengthened Tehran’s so-called “ring of fire” around Israel, a network of terror proxies that are part of a plan to exterminate the Jewish state.

With that strategic context in mind, it hardly surprising that the Houthis have attacked Israel following Hamas’s October 7 massacre in Israel. After all, the official motto of the Houthis is: “God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel. Curse the Jews, victory for Islam.”

As if on cue, even as Hezbollah attempted to divert Israeli attention and resources from Gaza by launching attacks on Israel’s northern border, the Houthis started conducting attacks on Israel from the south on October 19 by launching a barrage of drones and cruise missiles toward Israel. The USS Carney, an American destroyer, intercepted 19 of the drones and four of the cruise missiles, while Saudi Arabia reportedly intercepted one of the cruise missiles (a notable manifestation of common Saudi and Israeli interests). Other Houthi attacks include an attack with a medium-range ballistic missile on Oct. 31.

Now, the Houthis have used another one of Iran’s preferred tactics — seizing or attacking ships linked to Israel. A recent report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies found that Iran harassed, attacked, or seized 26 ships between January 2021 and July 2023. Many of these ships were tenuously linked to Israel. The “Israeli-linked” ships were often not crewed by Israelis, not operated by Israeli companies, or traveling to or from Israel but had some indirect connection with an Israeli businessperson. This appears to be the case with the Galaxy Leader, which is reportedly Bahamian-flagged, British-owned, Japanese operated, and had Philippine, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, and Mexican crewmembers, demonstrating the wide-ranging impacts of Iran’s aggression. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) remarked, “This is not an Israeli ship”, although records indicate the ship is associated with Ray Car Carriers, a company founded by the Israeli businessman Abraham “Rami” Ungar.

Such nuance may not mean much to the Houthis, who are eager to find every opportunity to target Israeli interests, real or perceived. “We will sink your ships,” the Houthis declared in Arabic, English, and Hebrew on a graphic released on November 14 showing an Israeli commercial vessel in flames.

The Houthis and their terror patron in Tehran seek to divert Israeli resources away from the campaign against Hamas. The missile and drone attacks have consumed interceptors that could be used to prepare for a confrontation with Hezbollah, and attacks on ships could divert some finite Israeli intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to monitor the Red Sea.

These attacks likely also send a message to Saudi Arabia that its cities could once again face barrages of missiles and drones. Attacks on shipping could also increase calls for a ceasefire by countries or entities that would otherwise be largely uninterested in the Gaza conflict, as disruptions to shipping can have global economic implications. Indeed, ships are already reported to have diverted their course in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, a situation that could become much worse.  

Combined with attacks from Hezbollah and from Iran-backed Iraqi and Syrian militias, it is clear that Iran and its proxies are trying to spread out the IDF’s forces and create enough global pressure to stop the Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to prevent Hamas’s decimation.

Iran has spent decades building the capability to attack its adversaries in the Middle East from multiple axes at the same time. By training and supporting numerous proxies, Iran is able to pressure its adversaries while avoiding retaliation. This strategy seeks to keep Israel, the United States, and its Arab partners harried and divided while Iranian leaders sit in safety able to dial up or down attacks at times and places of their choosing.

The strategy of using proxy terror puppets to conduct attacks is unlikely to change until the puppet master in Tehran begins to feel more direct consequences for the continued aggression.

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, where Ryan Brobst is a senior research analyst.

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