Saturday, October 15, 2016

Iranian Proxies: Houthis, Threaten Freedom of Navigation in Red Sea

The remains of the United Arab Emirate High Speed Vessel HSV 2 Swift
The remains of the United Arab Emirate High Speed Vessel HSV 2 Swift ship
(Tasnim [Iran])
  • Since the beginning of October 2016, the Houthi-Yemeni conflict has assumed a new naval and international dimension that could endanger civilian freedom of navigation in the Red Sea’s Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which serves as a gateway for oil tankers headed to Europe through the Suez Canal. The Houthis are backed and armed by Iran; the Yemen army is backed by a Saudi-led Arab coalition.
  • On October 1, 2016, the Houthi-allied Yemeni Republican Guard launched an anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) near the Red Sea port of Mocha in the strategic Bab el-Mandeb shipping lane. It struck a humanitarian ship in the service of the United Arab Emirates Navy.
  • The United States dispatched three battleships to the area. On October 9, Iranian-backed Houthi militants fired on the USS Mason in the same area; on October 11, they fired two more cruise missiles at the ship. No damages or injuries were reported.
  • In retaliation, the USS Nitze launched Tomahawk cruise missile strikes knocking out three Houthi coastal radar sites “that were active during previous attacks and attempted attacks on ships in the Red Sea.” The strikes, authorized by President Barack Obama, represent Washington’s first direct military action against suspected Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen’s conflict.
  • Apparent in Yemen are the absence of the American player and the weakening of its overall policy in the Middle East. Not far from Yemen in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian fast boats continue to harass and provoke American warships, which operate without any appropriate response. Meanwhile, Iran continues to build its naval and missile power.
  • Playing down the incident will play into Iranian propaganda and bolster Iran’s already overconfident and defiant stance.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been waging war against the Yemeni army and the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen for several years. Since the beginning of October 2016, the conflict has assumed a new naval and international dimension that could endanger civilian freedom of navigation in the Red Sea’s Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which serves as a gateway for oil tankers headed to Europe through the Suez Canal.

On October 1, the Houthi-allied Yemeni Republican Guard launched [an]...anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) near the Red Sea port of Mocha in the strategic Bab el-Mandeb shipping lane. ...Iran supports Houthis in their struggle to take control of Yemen, including their firing of missiles at Saudi Arabia... 


Map of Yemen
Map of Yemen. Note the Bab el Mandeb choke point (CIA)

The missile struck an HSV-2 Swift hybrid catamaran belonging to the United Arab Emirates navy operating in the area as part of the Saudi coalition. The ship was carrying a humanitarian cargo as well as people injured in the combat areas of the city of Aden – the temporary capital for the Yemeni government since the Houthi conquest of Sana’a. This is not the first time the Houthis have claimed they are acting against ships of the Saudi-led Arab coalition in the area of Bab el-Mandeb.

The UAE Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “The targeting of the civilian ship in an international channel has serious implications for freedom of navigation, and is an act of terror.” The United Nations also condemned the act. It is worth noting that, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, a Noor missile that Iran supplied to Hizbullah struck the Israeli naval vessel INS Hanit and killed four crew members.

C-802 missile
C-802 Chinese designed missile

The Houthi rebels claimed to have fired the missile that destroyed the UAE ship. They also posted videos on social networks that document the surveillance, the launch of the missile, the moment it hit the ship, as well as rocket fire toward rescue boats that came to the area...

The ship when it once belonged to the U.S. Navy
The ship when it once belonged to the U.S. Navy (DOD photo)

A few days after the missile was fired at the UAE ship, the Houthis, under the name Yemeni Navy Coastal Defense, issued a warning to any vessel belonging to the Saudi-led coalition not to take action against Yemen, with a reminder about the strike on the UAE vessel. The vessels were warned not to approach Yemeni territorial waters without permission from the Yemeni authorities. The statement cautioned: “In case of witnessing any uncoordinated movements near Yemen’s territorial waters or trespass of our sea border, the vessels of Saudi Arabia and its allies will be destroyed.”

Following the firing of the missile at the UAE ship, the United States dispatched three naval ships to the area...

...On October 9, two presumed cruise missiles, launched within 60 minutes of each other from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, targeted the USS Mason (DDG-87) in the same area; on October 11, Iranian-backed Houthi militants fired two more cruise missiles within a 60-minute window at the USS Mason.

The ship’s crew employed a variety of onboard defensive measures to defend the guided-missile destroyer and nearby USS Ponce. Mason launched [several missiles and] used its Nulka anti-ship missile decoy. No damage or injuries were reported. The attack marks the first time in recent memory that a U.S. Navy vessel was forced to engage its on-board defense systems.

...In retaliation, the USS Nitze launched Tomahawk cruise missile strikes knocking out three coastal radar sites in areas of Yemen controlled by Iran-aligned Houthi forces...

Abd al-Malek Houthi’s assistant receiving the “resistance” award.

Abd al-Malek Houthi’s assistant receiving the “resistance” award. (Tasnim)

On the day the missile was fired at the UAE ship, Iran was holding an annual ceremony for those who have contributed to the resistance. The first place among the resistance movements was taken by Houthi leader Abd al-Malek Houthi. The personal certificate of merit for “Resistance 2016” was given to his assistant by Ali Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Arab media saw the award as further evidence of Iran’s growing involvement in the Yemeni conflict. Notably, unlike in the past, Iran is no longer concealing its involvement in Yemen and the aid it is providing to the Shiite Houthi rebels.

The firing of guided shore-to-sea missiles at U.S. and UAE ships constitutes an escalation in the Yemeni conflict and could pose a threat to a key international sea lane in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The ability to fire guided missiles, along with their long range (120 km.), endangers not only the coalition’s freedom of action and ability to enforce the Arab embargo but also civilian vessels, including tankers that operate in the area.

Iran’s aid to the Houthi rebels has apparently increased beyond Tehran’s ongoing assistance to fighting at the different fronts in Yemen. Iran is prepared to provide tie-breaking weapons that could help the Houthis breach the naval blockade that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have imposed on Yemen. In the past, weapons-smuggling ships have been intercepted as Iran was trying to transfer arms to the Houthi rebels. It appears, however, that with the Houthis holding their own in the battles, the embargo is ineffective and Iran has found other lanes for transferring weapons to the Houthis.
The ceasefire in Yemen collapsed at the beginning of August. ...

This war constitutes an additional arena for the “Battle of the Titans” between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is also being waged in other venues including Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, and is part of the realignment of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

...Iran views the maritime domain as an important channel for its influence. It enables it to protect its borders as it develops a special battle doctrine, “swarming,” to confront technologically superior (American) naval forces. It also enables Iran to ship aid to its proxies including the Houthis in Yemen, the Palestinian terror organizations, and Hizbullah.

The ongoing war in Yemen serves as a perfect venue for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), IRGC missile forces, IRGC Quds forces, and Hizbullah to battle-test some of their new weapons against Iran’s enemies – Saudi Arabia and its Arab-coalition and its arch enemy, the “Great Satan,” the United States.

Part of a cartoon on Khamenei’s webpage
Part of a cartoon on Khamenei’s webpage. Caption: “Iranian leader conveys a strong message – the Islamic Republic of Iran – unlike in the past when foreign powers exploited its natural resources and humiliated its people  – is powerful enough to defend itself and humiliate its enemies.”

For Iran, Yemen is a perfect venue for such tests.

Iran is preparing for future engagement with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf where the IRGCN frequently provokes and sometimes humiliates American naval presence in the area. The Americans’ reaction to launching the missiles against its ships may change the dynamics. Playing the incident down will again play into Iranian propaganda and bolster Iran’s already overconfident and defiant stance.
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