Iran Denies Involvement with Houthi Strikes, but Uses them in Propaganda

The incident came shortly after a Saudi-led airstrike killed 140 mourners at a funeral in Yemen, leading many to suspect that it was intended to punish Saudi Arabia’s traditional Western backers. But the Houthis had also previously attacked a United Arab Emirates commercial vessel, and their missile strikes against the supporters of exiled Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi have been penetrating deeper and deeper into Saudi territory.

The broader signs of expanding conflict between the Houthi and the Saudi-led Arab coalition help to highlight the underlying proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is presumably in  light of that fact that Japan Times quotes US Army General Joseph Votel, the head of operations in the Middle East, as saying that the established relationship between the Houthis and Tehran leads him to believe that the latter has some role in the attempted attacks on the US Navy.

Breaking Energy News published an article on Friday in which it considered some possible motives behind the attempted missile strikes. Naturally, one possibility is simply retaliation in the wake of the Saudi airstrikes, but another possibility cited by the article speculated about broader tactical goals based on the expectation of growing American involvement in the Yemeni Civil War. Yet the same article also presented the possibility that targeting the US was intended to create outrage that could possibly drag the superpower into the conflict, although Breaking Energy News also noted that it is not clear what the ultimate goal behind such an action would be.

However, that question is arguably less confounding when one considers such attacks as being directed by Iran, as opposed to by the Houthi themselves. An American military response or the threat of one would conceivably serve Iranian propaganda purposes, as evidenced by a number of speeches and state media broadcasts suggesting that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is prepared to fight a war that it expects the US to initiate.

In this sense, the Houthi missile launches fit a pattern already established by the IRGC naval forces, which has initiated more than twice as many close encounters with US Navy vessels this year, as compared to the same period last year. Some of these incidents, involving small IRGC patrol boats approaching US warships at high rates of speed, may be intended to demonstrate, to a hardline Iranian audience, the “swarm tactics” that IRGC commanders have described as being capable of sinking larger and better-equipped American ships.

Although these incidents have yet to lead to serious, sustained escalation, spokespersons for the US Navy have warned of the danger of such brinksmanship – a message that the IRGC and hardline media could rather easily portray as an aggressive threat on the part of the US. At the same time, it is clear that by announcing, accurately or otherwise, the release of new domestically-made Iranian weapons, the IRGC is portraying itself as steadily preparing to meet such a threat.

It is difficult to imagine that Tehran wants to actually encourage the outbreak of war between Iran and the US. But the Iranian regime could benefit from the perception that such a war is possible but that the US is either unable or unwilling to seriously pursue it. And it may be fair to say that such unwillingness is indeed a feature of the current US government. Some reports on the Houthi missile attacks have indicated that the Obama administration was reluctant to launch a response, although the president did eventually order a strike on three radar sites believed to belong to the Houthi, which he took care to emphasize were isolated enough to eliminate the risk of human casualties.

Although Iran continues to deny involvement in the strike, its commentary on the American response has reflected the broader anti-American rhetoric that has apparently intensified since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations last year. Referring to accusations of Iranian involvement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said, “The ambiguous and contradictory remarks by American officials in past days are wrong and inappropriate, showing their bewilderment in the Yemen conflict.”

Qasemi went on to vaguely accuse the US of its own involvement in the Yemeni Civil War, saying that that involvement may be either direct or indirect through its support of Saudi Arabia. He also warned the US against becoming mired in a “swamp” by deepening its involvement. Such statements may be intended to encourage President Obama’s apparent anxiety about the US becoming mired in another long Middle Eastern conflict.

Of course, Obama’s opponents in the US Congress are concerned that his policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran are only serving to further the instability of the region, by providing Iran with the means for greater regional influence and armament. On Friday a Reuters report threatened to further fuel those concerns by quoting one Iranian official as saying that the nuclear agreement, with its exchange of sanctions relief for modest cuts to the Iranian nuclear program, had given Iran the “upper hand” in its proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia.

That quotation came in the context of a report pointing out that both American and Iranian sources have indicated that Iran is stepping up its provision of arms and other support to the Houthi. The vast majority of that traffic is apparently being channeled through Yemen’s neighbor to the northeast, Oman. This fact highlights the threat of Iran securing an even larger foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, just outside the borders of its regional adversary.

But regardless of those effects, Reuters points out that the tightening bonds between Iran and the Houthi could exacerbate the “security headache” for the US that truly came into force with the attempted attacks on the USS Mason. Now it remains to be seen how the Obama administration will respond to that situation. This may in turn have some bearing on how the administration responds to the larger threat of Iran’s weapons smuggling and support of terrorism.

It is evident that until a clear response is given, Obama’s Republican rivals will remain skeptical, as will some Democrats. Numerous editorials have previously accused the US president of neglecting Iran’s domestic weapons development and illicit activities in favor of keeping the nuclear agreement alive. One such editorial, first published by US News and World early this month, noted that the White House had permitted the removal of sanctions on two banks accused of financing the Iranian ballistic missile program. 

The article concludes that this and other moves show the administration to not be serious about Iran’s missile development. In the present context of the Houthi strikes and the acknowledged weapons trafficking, this supposed lack of seriousness could have near-term consequences for the Yemeni Civil War and other conflicts in which Iran is either a direct or indirect participant.