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‘Gate of Tears’: Iran-aligned Houthis a growing threat in the Red Sea

By AFP - Dec 14,2023 - Last updated at Dec 14,2023

Yemeni coast guard members loyal to the internationally-recognised government ride in a speed boat and a patrol boat cruising in the Red Sea off of the government-held town of Mokha in the western Taiz province, close to the strategic Bab Al Mandab Strait, on Tuesday (AFP photo)

PARIS — The spike in attacks claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the Red Sea is dangerously increasing tensions in a bottleneck for international maritime trade and fuelling fears of an uncontrolled regional spillover of Yemen’s longstanding conflict.

Since the start of the war between Hamas and Israel, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have threatened to attack any ship heading to Israeli ports and stepped up their raids.

On Tuesday, Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a missile strike on a Norwegian-flagged tanker, an attack the Iran-backed group said was part of its military campaign against Israel.

Last month, they seized an Israel-linked cargo vessel, the Galaxy Leader, and its 25 international crew.

The Houthis, who control much of Yemen but are not recognised internationally, are part of the Iran-backed so-called “axis of resistance” arrayed against Israel.

They say they are defending the Palestinians from an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, and have launched a series of drones and missiles towards Israel. US and French warships patrolling the Red Sea have shot down Houthi missiles and drones several times since the militants began the attacks.

A vital link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea is a key trade route for global shipping and energy supplies.

Some 40 per cent of international trade passes through the Strait of Bab Al Mandeb, or the “Gate of Tears”, a narrow waterway which separates the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa.

“This is a rather dangerous moment for the stability of this strategic region,” said Camille Lons, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Fabian Hinz of the International Institute for Strategic Studies added: “The Houthis have the capacity to cause considerable damage.”

While warships passing through the Red Sea are well equipped and can retaliate, commercial vessels do not have the same protections. “The US Navy cannot escort every civilian vessel in the Red Sea,” said Hinz.


Iran influence 


In recent years ties have grown between the Houthi rebels and Iran but the extent of their cooperation and coordination remains a major question.

The Houthis say they manufacture their drones domestically, although analysts say they contain smuggled Iranian components.

“The big question of course is the exact nature of Iranian involvement in these strikes,” said Hinz.

“Houthi equipment is mostly Iranian technology, but we know very little about Tehran’s involvement in decision-making.”

Many experts insist on the degree of autonomy of the Yemeni rebels.

Lons said that Houthis “don’t answer to Tehran like the Lebanese Hizbollah does, the jewel in the crown of Iranian proxies in the region”.

“The Houthis would exist with or without Iran,” Franck Mermier, a Yemen expert at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told AFP.

“They have a religious and ideological closeness to Iran, but they are Yemeni fighters first and foremost”, he said.

“I’m not sure the Iranians push the button on every attack,” added Mermier.

In contrast to Hizbollah’s creation during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, Iran had had no role in the birth of the Houthi movement.

The rebels adhere to a branch of Shiite Islam known as Zaidism.


‘Unpredictable and dangerous’ 


At the weekend Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi urged the international community to rein in the Yemeni rebels.

“If the world does not take care of it,” Hanegbi warned, “we will take action.”

Analysts said that the tensions could get out of hand quickly.

“The Houthis are totally unpredictable and dangerous. And the processes that trigger war are always unpredictable,” said Mermier.

“So far the Houthis have struck without attracting massive retaliation, but it can get out of hand,” added Mermier.

Lons said that so far Iran has demonstrated it has no interest in letting the situation escalate regionally.

“However, Tehran has less leverage over groups like the Houthis,” added Lons.

Noam Raydan, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a note to clients that since the capture of the Galaxy Leader some companies have been re-routing their ships around the Cape of Good Hope, opting for a longer and costlier route.

“The risk of major disruption to global trade will remain high as long as commercial ships operated by various nationalities are being targeted,” she said.

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