Is the Israeli-Iranian Shadow War Encroaching on Yemen?

As nuclear negotiations between Iran, the United States, and European nations stall for yet another week, both Israel and the United States are resorting to force. 

The most headline-grabbing of a series of strikes against the Iranian axis of militia groups took place in Yemen. The Israelis are not necessarily forthcoming when they conduct military operations abroad, but this one seems special: it is the first suspected time that the Israeli air force struck Houthi targets in Yemen. 

The attack was overshadowed and tied up with the Israeli war with Islamic Jihad inside Gaza because it occurred at the same time. But in practice, it is distinct and worth discussing on its own. 

An Israeli commander alluded to Yemen when he referred to a strike on a “third country” earlier in August. This is connected to a series of blasts in what was described as a ballistic missile factory in a military base near the Houthi-occupied capital of Sanaa. 

Both Houthi fighters and Iranians were killed in the blast, reported the Jerusalem Post, while open-source analysts on social media related the story they had heard: that the explosions were caused by mishandling of ballistic missiles in transport or installation.   

Clearly someone in Israeli military circles wants his country to get the credit for the result.   

All of this has a veil of allusion and obfuscation. It is still impossible to say definitively what happened. But given the trends of the last decade, it is not impossible to consider the question of why.  

Two things are simultaneously true.   

One: Iran has a growing proxy network which spans the Middle East. It is in power in Iraq and Lebanon and growing in strength in Yemen, where the Houthis – who have been Iranian allies and ideological fellow travellers for decades – are perpetually on the cusp of taking major settlements like Marib and Aden. 

Two: Iran’s adversaries have been hit by a campaign of ballistic missile strikes targeting their economies and major cities over recent years: Saudi Arabia has been hit most times, with major strikes on Riyadh, its oil refinement plants and broader fossil fuel economy. But so too has the United Arab Emirates

These missiles have largely come from Yemen. And although there is debate over whether the Houthis themselves have been building and launching the missiles – or whether Iranian engineers and gunners have taken the lead – this is a growing problem with a base of operations in Houthi-controlled Yemen.  

The Saudis consider themselves uniquely helpless in the face of this attack – not least because they believe their American allies do not care. The Saudis have responded by developing a ballistic missile programme of their own in an effort at deterrence. 

Israel has largely watched these developments passively, but misfortunes faced by one regional enemy of Iran can soon spread. 

Tel Aviv has long sounded an alarm about Iranian missile programmes. When Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister of Israel, gave a blockbuster presentation in 2018 about what he called Iranian lies about complying with the previous nuclear deal, he focused mainly on its ballistic missile programme. “They’re planning much longer-range missiles to carry nuclear weapons,” he said.   

In the four years since, Iranian missiles have reshaped the region. Israel now fears that missiles launched from Yemen will soon be not only capable of striking Israel but frequently used to do so. In response, Israel has been systematically attacking Iranian scientists in a bid to derail Tehran’s defence sector. 

An attack on missile-making facilities would be both an interruption and deterrence of a further-reaching Houthi ballistic missile programme.  

With the Houthis in power in much of Yemen, and their missile campaign against Saudi Arabia and the Emirates only increasing, it seems Israel may be drawn deeper into conflict in Yemen in a bid to defang this particular new threat.  

For years, Israel has been in a similar position in Syria. Iran supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad from the beginning, sending Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers to lead and recruit fighters from the very beginning of the war. 

As the regime tottered, Iran mobilised a network of militias, led until his death by IRGC—Quds Force major general Qasem Soleimani, to fight on Assad’s behalf.   

Among them is Hezbollah, which has gained in strength and experience while fighting for many years in Syria.  

When rebel areas in the south were overrun, these militias came close to Israel’s border with Syria in the occupied Golan Heights. In concert with Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias within Syria pose a direct threat to Israel. 

They fly offensive drones and fire rockets in Israel’s direction. They traffic heavy weaponry between Iran and Lebanon and have at times threatened direct assault.  

For years, Israel’s air force has attacked these militias in Syria, striking their bases, their supply warehouses, their logistics trains and their fighters in a bid to keep them under-armed and away from Israel’s borders.  

This policy has never succeeded. The militias have entrenched themselves not only in regime-controlled Syria but also in the country’s south. If Israel wished to evict them with its air campaign in Syria, it unquestionably has failed.  

This is why American strikes on IRGC-linked targets in Syria – the second major incident of the past month – are an interesting development. 

In response to Iranian militia attacks on American bases, the US struck what its Central Command (CENTCOM) called “infrastructure facilities used by groups affiliated with” Iranian militias in Deir az-Zour on 23 and 25 August.   

The Americans confirmed the use of AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters, and M777 howitzers – with four fighters apparently killed and seven rocket launchers destroyed in a serious show of force.  

These strikes were framed by officials as proportionate and just, without the risk of escalation. But they represent something similar to Israel’s campaign in Syria and, if confirmed, in Yemen. 

Iranian-backed groups are embedded regionally and have definitive goals, including the entrenchment of Iranian influence.   

If given the capacity to remain and persist, they will do so. Undefeated, they will likely regroup and expand.  

And as they spread and entrench, and arm themselves better, their compass could also shift. They may find themselves in opposition not just to the near enemy, but also to the more distant one – united in a common, region-wide project to oppose the Arab monarchies, Israel, and the United States, and to spread the Islamic revolution.  

As American diplomats and others attempt to resuscitate the nuclear agreement, their leaders must appreciate the bind they are in. A new deal may not bring peace or stability. It could also do little to stop the Houthis’ missiles or Iranian militias south of Damascus. Dealing with each is an entirely different game.   

Periodic and proportional half-measures will confine America and Israel to campaigns carried out piecemeal, and reactively, as Iran’s network of clients goes on expanding and growing ever more capable in the background. 

This piece was originally published in The New Arab.

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