The Houthi conundrum: Iran must pay a price for its conduct
Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the Houthis have made at least 100 attacks on U.S. Navy ships and many nations’ commercial ships in the Red Sea, which is the only efficient route from the Pacific to the Mediterranean and Europe. The other route goes all the way around Africa.
About 20% of the world’s container traffic and about 10% of the world’s gas and oil go through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. At one point, five of the world’s largest container shipping companies (and BP) halted traffic through the Red Sea because of the Houthi attacks. (The Danish company Maersk has announced it will resume sailing in the Red Sea.)
Iran is edging closer to using military force directly against the West. According to a Wall Street Journal report, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ship is in the Red Sea, feeding intelligence to the Houthis regarding ship locations and identities. It could be operating the Houthis’ drones and missiles directly.
In another report, a Japanese-owned chemical ship was hit by an Iranian drone about 200 miles off the coast of India. Iran is also reportedly accelerating its nuclear program, increasing its enriched uranium stockpile to near-weapons grade.
On Dec. 23, Iran threatened to close the entire Mediterranean Sea if the U.S. and Israel continued their “crimes” in the Gaza Strip. That’s not only an obvious bluff but also another demonstration of Iran’s belligerent confidence that the United States will not punish it directly.
What this means is that Iran is not deterred by the massive forces President Biden has sent into the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden. Neither are the Houthis.
On Dec. 18, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, in which 10 nations are to participate to protect shipping in the Red Sea. Mr. Austin said, “Iran’s support for Houthi attacks on commercial vessels must stop.”
How he intends to force Iran to end that support is unclear.
Mr. Biden apparently intends to keep a lot of U.S. naval vessels in the Red Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden. He and Mr. Austin evidently hope other nations’ navies will help, but that help is likely to be too little and of too little duration.
Our ships’ crews cannot remain on station indefinitely. They need rest, the ships need refitting, and the idea of keeping them on station for many months will stress our forces beyond their capability.
With its battle group, the USS Gerald Ford is in the eastern Mediterranean, near Israel. At least five U.S. destroyers are in the Red Sea, and the USS Dwight Eisenhower and its battle group are poised off Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden near the Red Sea. Such carrier battle groups are usually accompanied by one or more submarines.
Perhaps the Iranian ship could be terribly unlucky. An explosion aboard could sink it. That explosion could be the result of a torpedo strike by a U.S. sub, which could sink the ship without being detected. Our explanation would be no more than to deny the submarine’s attack. But that’s not enough to deter Iran and its proxies.
The Saudis are reportedly close to a deal with the Houthis that would end their attacks on Saudi Arabia and could include a cessation of the attacks on ships in the Red Sea. But neither Iran nor the Houthis can be expected to abide by any deal for longer than it takes for the ink to dry on it.
What happens if the Saudi-Houthi deal falls through? What if it doesn’t include a promise by the Houthis to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea? Mr. Biden’s dismal record in diplomacy doesn’t inspire confidence that he or the Saudis can bring about an even temporary peace with the Houthis.
Which brings us, again, to the problem Iran poses. Tickling Iran with a few airstrikes on its proxies in Iraq, Syria or Yemen won’t deter it or end its proxies’ attacks on U.S. and commercial targets there and in the Red Sea. Iran itself must pay a price for its conduct.
U.S. troops continue to suffer attacks by Iranian proxy forces in Syria and Iraq. On Dec. 26, at least one soldier was critically wounded in such an attack in Iraq.
Mr. Biden should order the open and undeniable sinking of the Iranian ship helping to guide the Houthi drones and missiles in the Red Sea. It would be a proportional response to the continued attacks on our troops in Iraq and Syria and to the Houthis’ continued attacks on our naval vessels in the Red Sea.
Sinking that ship would draw a precise and enforceable red line that Iran could not cross without provoking a war with the United States. It’s high time Mr. Biden drew that red line.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.