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Yemen Has Become an Iranian Proxy War Against Israel

The United Arab Emirates faces a militant consequence of the Abraham Accords.

By , a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and , the deputy director for the New Lines Institute’s Human Security Unit.
Yemenis inspect damage following overnight air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition targeting the Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on Jan. 18. The air strikes were retaliation for a deadly Jan. 17 Houthi attack against Abu Dhabi.
Yemenis inspect damage following overnight air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition targeting the Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on Jan. 18. The air strikes were retaliation for a deadly Jan. 17 Houthi attack against Abu Dhabi.
Yemenis inspect damage following overnight air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition targeting the Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on Jan. 18. The air strikes were retaliation for a deadly Jan. 17 Houthi attack against Abu Dhabi. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 17, strikes launched by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen killed three people in Abu Dhabi, prompting Emirati- and Saudi-led military escalations against the group that have caused the deaths of dozens of Yemeni civilians over the past week. The Houthis have warned of more attacks to come and launched another attack on Abu Dhabi early on Jan. 24.

Yemen’s civil war began in 2014. Although it has ground on for the better part of a decade, peace seems no closer today than it did eight years ago. That September, the Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, provoking a Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government. In 2019, the United Arab Emirates, part of the Saudi alliance, drew down its commitments in Yemen as progress stagnated and criticism of the civilian toll from coalition activities sharpened. After taking office last year, U.S. President Joe Biden called the war a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” and ramped up diplomacy to end it. Yet fighting continues, and the humanitarian situation remains dire as funding shortages force cuts in emergency assistance and civilians navigate the threats of landmines and airstrikes.

If confirmed, the successful Jan. 17 Houthi strikes show an expanding range of the group’s capabilities. The implications for the Houthis’ ability to act on their threat of further retaliation are evident for the Gulf nations directly involved in military operations in Yemen. But by transferring long-range capabilities to the Houthis, Iran has also established Houthi-controlled Yemen as a staging ground to pressure Israel.

On Jan. 17, strikes launched by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen killed three people in Abu Dhabi, prompting Emirati- and Saudi-led military escalations against the group that have caused the deaths of dozens of Yemeni civilians over the past week. The Houthis have warned of more attacks to come and launched another attack on Abu Dhabi early on Jan. 24.

Yemen’s civil war began in 2014. Although it has ground on for the better part of a decade, peace seems no closer today than it did eight years ago. That September, the Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, provoking a Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government. In 2019, the United Arab Emirates, part of the Saudi alliance, drew down its commitments in Yemen as progress stagnated and criticism of the civilian toll from coalition activities sharpened. After taking office last year, U.S. President Joe Biden called the war a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” and ramped up diplomacy to end it. Yet fighting continues, and the humanitarian situation remains dire as funding shortages force cuts in emergency assistance and civilians navigate the threats of landmines and airstrikes.

If confirmed, the successful Jan. 17 Houthi strikes show an expanding range of the group’s capabilities. The implications for the Houthis’ ability to act on their threat of further retaliation are evident for the Gulf nations directly involved in military operations in Yemen. But by transferring long-range capabilities to the Houthis, Iran has also established Houthi-controlled Yemen as a staging ground to pressure Israel.

The recent Houthi attacks against the UAE are notable because they come just as the country—the key Arab state actor in the Abraham Accords, which include Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—is deepening its relationship with Israel. While the Houthis have situated the attack within the framework of the war in Yemen, the timing suggests otherwise. Over the years, Iran has cultivated the Houthi movement as a key partner. Although the Houthis retain their autonomy from Iran, they have developed deeper ties with Tehran through support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other Iranian-backed groups across the Middle East, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Shared revisionist principles brought the Houthis into the so-called Axis of Resistance, an informal and Iranian-led alliance among like-minded state and nonstate actors in the region. The Houthis—who are mostly Shiite, like Iran, Hezbollah, and others—oppose a regional order dominated by the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their mostly Sunni allies. The Houthis’ sociopolitical, military, and strategic outlook has aligned more closely with that of Iran as they have consolidated power within northern Yemen. Such an alignment makes it possible for the IRGC to apply consistent, strategic military pressure throughout the southern Arabian Peninsula against Arab adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Tehran has sought to contest Israel and the new Abraham Accords alliance across the Middle East, and Yemen is no exception. Iranian support to the Houthis during Yemen’s ongoing civil war has significantly altered the group’s military capabilities, including by allowing them to build an arsenal that includes ballistic missiles and one-way attack drones. The Houthis have targeted Saudi Arabia—and now the UAE—with their advanced weapons and are beginning to show a willingness to contest Israel on behalf of Iran from their territory. Over time, the Houthis’ position could allow Iran to stage strikes against Israeli targets in the Red Sea—including Israeli vessels and potentially southern Israeli cities such as Eilat—as well as escalate the scale of attacks against the Abraham Accords states from the underbelly of the Arabian Peninsula.

The United States has sought to put Yemen on a slow, diplomatic back burner and disentangle itself from any perceived support for the Saudi-led coalition. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to end U.S. support for Saudi military activities against the Houthis. And although he has appointed a special presidential envoy, Tim Lenderking, to work parallel to the United Nations effort to end the war, such diplomacy only works when backed by credible threats. Instead, the Biden administration has prioritized the renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal in its Middle East regional diplomacy.

But the reality is that the Houthis’ threat will not remain limited to Yemen or even the Arabian Peninsula. The group’s persistent engagement with Iran and other members of the Axis of Resistance has made Yemen another front in the alliance’s war on the United States, Israel, and their Abraham Accords allies. In the context of the Yemen war, the Houthis have established a track record of attacks against the UAE and Saudi Arabia—a potential future member of the Abraham Accords, according to some reports—and threatened Israel by pledging full support to militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas and drawing up aspirational targeting lists.

Iran’s relationship with the Houthis is key to the regional issues facing major U.S. partners in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, vis-à-vis Iran. U.S. Arab partners have long-running concerns that a potential nuclear deal brokered between the United States and Iran would leave them vulnerable to Iranian regional activities, fears exacerbated by the U.S. pivot to Asia. Israel feels similarly.

The waterways surrounding Yemen have already been a key theater for Iranian and Israeli escalations. In April 2021, Israeli limpet mines damaged an Iranian cargo ship that had IRGC ties and probably provided intelligence and logistical support to the Houthis. In late July 2021, a one-way drone struck an Israeli-linked oil tanker off the coast of Oman, killing two people. A U.S. military investigation concluded the drone was produced in Iran, but it may have been launched from eastern Yemen. As regional tensions rise between the members of the Abraham Accords and the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance, the Houthis’ incorporation into the latter alliance will have drastic consequences for how that future conflict could play out.

The Houthis’ threat will not remain limited to Yemen or even the Arabian Peninsula.

The Iranian-backed and IRGC-taught capabilities that the Houthis now possess in drone warfare—which have proved especially damaging against critical infrastructure, military bases, and civilian shipping in southern Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea—are a potent example of what may be to come in the next regional war between Israel and its allies and its Iranian-backed adversaries.

The Houthis’ threat to Israel’s security is real, and Israeli national security planners are very alive to that fact. Israel has repositioned counter-missile and rocket batteries in southern Israel partly to be able to react against potential Houthi-launched strikes. The Israel Defense Forces have already calculated that Iran may not strike from the usual northern axis in the event of an Iranian-Israeli war and are looking to leverage the Abraham Accords to contend with Iran across the region. As the United States has focused on Iran’s nuclear threat, Israel and its Arab allies have had to deal with the reality of a growing ballistic missile and drone threat.

The tragedy of Yemen is that the war and its horrific human toll—exacerbated by the military activities of the anti-Houthi coalition—have now become one of the battlefields of a regional conflict. A truism of the war in Yemen has been that a Saudi-Houthi detente is the only way to sustainable peace.

But now, the Houthis are not the only ones calling the shots for their side. The IRGC’s steady supply of advanced weapons enables the Houthis’ aggressive stance, and the Houthis’ dependence on Tehran may make them more responsive to the IRGC’s wants. Theoretically, a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could help set conditions for a political resolution to the conflict, and there are signs the United States and others are trying this approach. But a pathway to peace through a Saudi-Houthi or Saudi-Iranian compromise will remain elusive without a far more comprehensive regional modus vivendi in places such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, Syria, and Yemen and until the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program is resolved.

The Houthis’ incorporation into the IRGC’s proxy warfare against Saudi Arabia and the Abraham Accords members means that the current U.S. approach to managing the Houthi threat as part of the Yemen conflict will fail. In February 2021, the Biden administration removed the Houthis from the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list to allow humanitarian aid to flow into the country more smoothly. But that decision has proved to be a mistake. Not only did the Houthis take it as a green light to push for a military defeat of opposition forces in Yemen, but it has allowed them to become part of the IRGC’s expeditionary network of proxy forces. Biden’s announcement that his administration is considering a redesignation following the Jan. 17 strikes may be too little, too late.

As long as the Houthis control northern Yemen and receive IRGC support, they will provide Iran with a southern front for its Axis of Resistance in a wider regional war against Israel and its partners. The United States must pay attention to Yemen, not just for Yemen’s sake, but for the security of the Middle East.

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute Twitter: @KatieZimmerman

Nicholas A. Heras is the deputy director for the New Lines Institute’s Human Security Unit. Twitter: @NicholasAHeras

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