We now face the ironic, yet all-too-predictable, result of years of U.S. appeasement of Iran in order to secure a global nuclear deal: U.S. military involvement in a proxy war with the Islamic Republic in Yemen.
In recent days, an exchange of missile attacks between Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the United States puts the lie to President Barack Obama’s argument that the nuclear deal would make war between the United States and Iran less likely. Instead, recent events justify the concerns of critics that Washington’s numerous eye-popping concessions to Tehran to secure the nuclear deal, along with Washington’s stubborn refusal to address Iranian provocations on the high seas, would serve to embolden Iran to pursue its regional ambitions even more aggressively than it had before.
To be sure, the United States didn’t trade missile attacks with Iran directly. But Iran’s fingerprints were all over the Houthi move against the U.S. military, and Tehran responded to the U.S. attack by sending two warships to the region where American ships are patrolling.
The Houthis are one of Iran’s key proxy armies and, as such, are an important tool of its regional ambitions. Indeed, through its own military forces and through proxies, Iran controls to varying degrees the governments of four neighborhood countries – Syria, through its close ties to president and strongman Bashar Assad; Iraq, through the Shiite militias that it supports; Lebanon, through its terrorist proxy Hezbollah; and Yemen, through the Houthi rebels who overthrew Yemen’s government in 2014.
Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation, is competing fiercely with Sunni Saudi Arabia for regional dominance, and Yemen has become a key battleground in this contest. While Iran backs the Houthis with financial support, weapons, training and intelligence, Saudi Arabia since 2015 has led a multinational military effort (supported by the United States) to oust the Houthis and restore the previous government to power.
In early October, Washington sent warships to patrol the area north of the heavily trafficked Bab al-Mandab Strait, which connects the Suez Canal and Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, after an Oct. 1 Houthi missile strike disabled the Swift, a military logistics ship of the United Arab Emirates. On Oct. 9, two cruise missiles fired from Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen’s Red Sea coast targeted the USS Mason, one of three U.S. warships on patrol, but fell short of their target. That the same cruise missiles are used by Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, highlights Iran’s connection to the Houthi attack.
The Mason defended itself on the spot by firing defensive salvos, fending off an attack that could have killed dozens of sailors. But the larger U.S. response came on Oct. 12, when the USS Nitze fired tomahawk cruise missiles at three radar installations that the Pentagon said were used in the Houthi attack. That’s when Iran sent two of its warships to the area. Over the weekend, the Mason came under renewed fire and deployed counter-measures, but Pentagon officials have not blamed the latest attack specifically on the Houthis, saying they’re still gathering information.
Why the Houthis, with or without Iranian direction, want to tempt direct U.S. military action in their civil war against the Saudi-led coalition isn’t clear, but perhaps they didn’t expect a serious U.S. response. After all, they observed U.S.-led negotiations over the global nuclear deal, in which Washington provided Tehran with numerous concessions – including over $100 billion in direct sanctions relief – for a temporary halt to the latter’s nuclear program. They observed, as well, Washington’s feeble response as armed Iranian speedboats harassed U.S. warships in the area on numerous occasions since the nuclear deal was inked in July of 2015, while Iran sent rockets dangerously close to a U.S. aircraft carrier. They also watched as Iran humiliated the United States by seizing 10 of its sailors back in January, before releasing them the next day.
Under Obama, Washington has sought to coax Tehran into warmer relations and greater regional cooperation by treating Iranian officials with greater respect and ignoring their military and rhetorical provocations. Attacks on U.S. warships by the Iranian-backed Houthis make clear just how effective that campaign has been.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.