The United States is trying to protect free maritime trade in the Red Sea, but strikes against Houthi rebels have not been enough to stop its Iranian ally. Now, with the support of other powers, the Iranian regime is poised to raise the stakes of the conflict
Conflict has erupted again in the Middle East. Within 24 hours, Iran launched an attack with ballistic missiles and kamikaze drones against Mossad targets in Erbil, northern Iraq. Hours later, Houthi rebels again targeted a Greek cargo ship in the Red Sea. This is the first time Tehran has claimed responsibility for the attack since the start of the conflict, and according to experts, US deterrence in the region risks not only failing but also escalating the conflict globally. This is only possible knowing that Iran is not alone.
“Iran has shown that it cannot stop attacks through proxies like Hamas or Hezbollah. This conflict in the Middle East has a very strong connection to Ukraine. Just as Russia had China's support to attack Ukraine, Iran knows it can attack because of Russia's support. This is not World War III, but it is Undoubtedly a global conflict,” argues José Felipe Pinto, full professor and expert in international relations.
Contrary to what has happened so far, Iran has launched at least two attacks on its neighbors. The first, launched early Monday morning, was “directed against spies of the Zionist regime.” [Israel]” against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. This Tuesday, Tehran announced new strikes against the bases of the terrorist group Jaish al-Salm, which operates from southeast Pakistan. Pakistan's foreign ministry said Iran was responsible for the deaths of the two children and assured “severe consequences”. According to experts, this is not an isolated incident, but a change in the position of the military authorities in Tehran, which is happening only because of the support of another major power, Russia.
Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, Iran has positioned itself as a key Russian ally by supplying Shahed-136 kamikaze drones during the first year of the invasion when Moscow was unable to meet its munitions needs. Now, nearly two years after the war began, the Kremlin has every interest in diverting attention (and military support) away from Kiev. The practical effect is an escalation of the war, which could result in an even wider conflict across the Middle East.
“Iran is very comfortable being a close ally of Russia. Moscow is very interested in escalating the conflict over the West's support for Israel as it supports Ukraine. “Russia wants Iran to go to war against the United States because they rely heavily on the Iranian military industry, which will be one of the first targets of the Americans,” explains Major General Isidro de Morais Pereira.
But modern conflicts are not limited to military elements. It is increasingly difficult to separate the economic and diplomatic aspects of modern conflicts, and has led the United States to form a coalition of nations to protect sea lanes in the Red Sea. Over the past few days, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have attacked several cargo ships trying to cross the region towards the Suez Canal.
The U.S. response was felt on January 12 with a bombing campaign against several military targets in the Yemeni region where the rebels operate. According to reports by the US Armed Forces, about 25% of the group's military capabilities were affected. Most of these capabilities are provided by Iran. According to a 2021 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sea mines, ballistic and cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones).
“The US tried to hit military targets, production centers and launch sites for drones and missiles. It turns out that the Houthis have the opportunity to move mobile launch sites. This means that the capabilities of the rebels may have been reduced, but not destroyed,” says José Felipe Pinto.
Experts also argue that the attack did not create a deterrent effect. A few days later, the group again launched new attacks against cargo ships and has already forced the diversion of a significant part of sea traffic, and many companies intending to cross the Cape of Good Hope. region. This increases the cost of carrying goods and increases inflationary pressure in Western economies.
Also, there is a wide disparity between operational costs for the US in relation to the Yemeni attacks. To protect cargo ships crossing the region, the U.S. Navy must deploy highly sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons that, in some cases, cost more than a million euros per unit. On the other hand, Houthi rebels cause serious damage to ships with a few thousand euros.
“The US has had to retaliate because it has suffered attacks against the merchant navy, but it has to assert itself as the defender of prosperity and free trade. But Yemen is a hornet's nest. No one wants to put boots on the ground, so the attacks will be limited to aerial intervention,” explains Professor José Felipe Pinto. .
The Houthis, one side of Yemen's nearly decade-long civil war, are part of Iran's so-called “opposition axis” — an anti-Israeli, anti-Western alliance of regional militias backed by the Islamic Republic. Along with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis are one of three major Iranian-backed militias that have carried out attacks against Israel in recent weeks.
Now, backed by Russia and with China's approval, these groups are more motivated than ever to defend their interests before the world's greatest power, the United States. The views of these groups are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile in a globalized world.
“How can the international order be unified when the principles of each order are not the same or are subject to different interpretations? We are witnessing a clash of civilizations, and the world will become increasingly unstable”, exemplifies José Philippe Pinto.
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