Business Insider notes that the apparent Houthi missile launches were unprecedented, not just insofar as they threatened to draw the US into a war that has thus far been limited to Iranian and Saudi proxies, but also because it was the first time in history that the Navy was obliged to respond to an attack by launching defensive interceptor missiles to assure that the incoming projectiles splashed down harmlessly.
After taking those defensive measures, the Navy also launched retaliatory strikes on three radar stations in Houthi-controlled territory on the Yemeni coast. This, at least for the time being, appears to be the extent of the involvement that the US is willing to pursue in the conflict. But the statements from Votel and Donegan may be indicative of a much broader conflict that awaits if the Iran-backed rebels in Yemen continue to act provocatively toward the West.
The US had previously intercepted Iranian shipments of weapons headed for Yemen, which included cruise missiles like those fired against the US ships earlier this month. This, together with the limited resources and know-how of the Houthis and the nation of Yemen as a whole, helps to justify the conclusion that the attacks were only made possible with shipments of Iranian weapons, and perhaps with Iranian assistance in launching them.
Now, despite the limited US response to the previous attacks, Business Insider reports that the Houthi still appear to be targeting international shipping lanes, as indicated by RPG fire recently directed at a Spanish tanker. It is impossible to say at present whether these weapons also originated in Iran or whether the provocations are being either supported or directed by the Houthi’s allies and handlers among the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But whatever the extent of Iran’s involvement in Yemen, it is representative of a broader patter of expanding influence.
Earlier this week it was reported that Iran had seemingly made new inroads toward a controlling interest in Lebanon, as the more than two-year-long presidential vacancy in that country had been resolved in favor of the candidate preferred by Hezbollah. Iran News Update previously pointed to a Reuters report that described this as a victory for Iran over its Saudi adversaries, who had supposedly retreated from Lebanon in order to focus on other, less deeply threatened regions of influence.
On Friday, the Lebanese news source NOW reported upon the same development from a different angle, describing it as a “milestone” in the waning influence of the Syrian government over the nation of Lebanon. This report emerged on the same day as the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers were meeting with their Russian counterpart in Moscow to discuss future strategies for the defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a five-year, multi-party rebellion.
It is generally understood that Iran’s direct involvement in that conflict has deepened its political influence over Assad and has made his government dependent upon Iranian patrons. This trend is helped along by the fact that the Iranian strategy in Syria includes recruitment and support for a number of Shiite militias and paramilitaries, one of which is Hezbollah. On this point, NOW observes that Iranian influence has led to a reversal of an older situation. Whereas the Syrian army had once been able to attack Hezbollah barracks in Lebanon with little fear of consequences, now Hezbollah’s political influence has grown domestically and its military strength has expanded to allow it to “invade” Syria on Iran’s behalf.
But the NOW article concludes by emphasizing that this change in the balance of power in Lebanon does not signal a change in the overall situation for the Lebanese people, or for the region as a whole. In other words, as the Assad regime has been driven further back behind its own borders, Iran has taken up at least one foreign role that used to be served by Syria, its ally and newfound dependent. At least in this case, direct Iranian influence in one Middle Eastern country appears to help foster indirect influence over another.
Naturally, the affairs of many countries in the region are closely entangled. And there are clear signs that Iran is trying to expand its influence into as many areas as possible, thus minimizing threats to its existing alliances. This tendency is perhaps most clearly on display with Turkey, whose relations with Iran had been deeply strained for years, especially in light of the two countries’ backing of different sides in the Syrian Civil War.
Today, Turkey continues to support Sunni and Kurdish rebels in Syria, though for a time that support appeared to be on the wane. This, no doubt, reflected the increasing closeness between Iran and Turkey, especially in the wake of an attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during which Iran supported the existing leadership.
Although Iran recently condemned Turkish forces’ involvement in Syria, where they are training rebels and apparently firing artillery in support of them, the leaders of Iran’s state-linked businesses have also taken to boasting of the extent of cooperation between the two on-again off-again allies. Jokpemereportst that this boastful commentary emerged recently in the wake of an explosion inside of Turkey that halted gas imports from Iran.
Such figures as the head of the National Iranian Oil Company insist that the delay from this incident will last merely days, owing to the close relationship between Turkish and Iranian government and business leaders. And certainly, this situation represents a dramatic improvement over the previous tensions between Iran and Turkey. In fact, the extent of those tensions is still being clarified today.
PanArmenian reported on Friday that new information had been revealed indicating that the Iranian judiciary executed three Turkish nationals last year, less than two weeks after a fraught visit to Tehran by Erdogan. As well as indicating how far the two countries have come, stories like this could serve to illustrate the threats that Iran may hold over Turkey and its visiting citizens, in addition to the threats of diminished exports and other economic contacts.
Although the apparent aims are different, this situation is arguably similar to the widely-reported threats lingering over Western nationals traveling to Iran, whether for business purposes or to visit family. At least four such individuals have been convicted of collaborating with the US over roughly the past month, and have been sentenced to prison terms between five and 18 years. Authorities have reportedly also demanded money for one US permanent resident who has not yet been sentenced.
This latter case clearly underscores the notion that Iran is holding Western nationals as bargaining chips as it negotiates for reentry into Western export markets and the international banking system. If this is Iran’s strategy, it is easy to conclude that similar threats could be used against its tentative regional partners as the Iranian regime strives to expand its influence and bring nearby countries’ foreign policies into line with its own.