By Dan Bavister
On the 18th of December, the US announced the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian in response to the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthis, a Yemeni rebel faction, had long been corroding the orderly flow of commerce through the Suez Canal from China and the East up into Europe. Initially, the US refrained from direct confrontation with the Houthi rebels. Then on the 31st of December, a call for aid came out from a container ship, requesting protection from a Houthi raid. US Navy helicopters rained down ammunition rounds on a cluster of small, motley boats, killing 10 Houthi militants in the process. A new stage in the Houthi crisis had begun.
On the 9th of January, US and British warships shot down 21 drones and missiles fired by the Houthis. London described it as the largest such attack in the area. Currently the clash with the Houthis remains dictated via surgical strikes. British and American destroyers have launched strikes into the heart of Yemen to destroy the Houthis’ chaotically-mobilised yet sophisticated and powerful airborne capabilities. They have taken out nests of anti-ship ballistic missile systems, rending apart the fragmented might of the Houthis.
The effects of this recent spate of violence in the Red Sea are already being felt far beyond the region. Shipping has been largely redirected to follow a course around the South African coast, a much longer and more costly journey, that has pushed back goods’ arrival dates and imposed higher costs in the markets of Europe. This concerns the perennially cost-orientated minds in London. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak knows that often elections are won or lost depending on the bottom line. And while it would be wrong to assume the Houthis would have inflicted immense economic suffering in Britain via this trade disruption, we must not disregard the fact that in a year when inflation and borrowing are already high, Mr Sunak will naturally be aware that it is in his best interests to preserve financial stability at home, via any means necessary overseas.
And so, the airstrikes on the Houthi rebels continue. Yet these rebels have powerful backers. Iran, that permanent and profound rival of the Western democracies, has provided the Houthis with arms and logistical support. They have turned a ragtag troupe of wayward rogues into a relatively organised militia, that has struck out violently against the US and Western powers via these sustained assaults on shipping in the Red Sea.
This clash with the Houthis is inextricably bound up with wider geopolitical manoeuvring in the region. Iran, that old rival of the Western democracies, has not only been propping up the Houthi rebels in Yemen – the Iranian government has also been supplying weaponry and logistical support to Hamas in its war against Israel.
The US’ recent violent tussle with Iran could be sowing the mephitic seeds of future conflict. The ideologies of liberal democracy and Islamist theocracy are certainly not easy bedfellows, and the US and Iran have long had a tense relationship to say the least, often dictated by burgeoning feuds and brief collapses in tension, that fall and then rise with the unpredictability of oncoming surf in the midst of a storm. But is a wider regional conflict foreshadowed by these latest strains in Iran-US relations?
Added to the Houthis’ assaults on shipping, and Hamas’ engagements with Israel, are a multitude of subsidiary clashes. Via a scattering of disorganised but continual attacks, Iran has asserted its claim to regional hegemony. It has presided over drone strikes in Syria and Iraq, and it has kept military support flowing to the Hezbollah group in Lebanon. Throughout the Middle East, the looming presence of Iran can be felt. Increasingly, Iran seems to not fear the US military, that once infamous force of conquest and bloody renown. Iran seems to feel it can be more intrepid in its violence, and that while the hulking might of the US military high command is focused on Ukraine and Taiwan, it can play an enhanced role, unafraid of US engagement in the Middle East. However, do these most recent US and British airstrikes speak of a return of a more interventionist Western foreign policy in the region?
This growing power and influence of Iran will certainly not fill the senior executive command in the Western nations with ebullient joy. Certainly, many in Europe and the US will be gravely concerned. Nonetheless, it is not the preserve of the West to dictate the internal affairs of Iran, nor any Middle Eastern nation for that matter. Nor is it the role of the US, nor Britain or the European Union, to treat the Iranian people as their precinct to rule over. However, the US, and to an extent Britain, have to project power in order to preserve peace. The US and Britain, not least as Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, must make it their mission to help stabilise, not dislodge, the fragile and complex lands of the Middle East.
Only time will tell what role the US and the whole Western alliance will play with regards to Iran and the Middle East. Let us hope that their influence is rooted in principles of peace, striving towards stability and prosperity in those unstable lands.
Image credit: The U.S. National Archives