Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

Iran-backed Houthis Shutting Down Global Shipping Routes

 

White House Slammed for Weak Response to Iranian, Houthi Attacks

 

The Iran-backed Houthis have exploded onto the world stage after seizing a foreign vessel with its 25-man crew on Nov. 19, launching cruise missiles and drones at more than 15 ships since then, and effectively paralyzing vital international shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

The Biden administration has been criticized for its weak response to Houthi aggression, as well as its continued “do-nothing” policy in the face of Iran’s missile and drone attacks on US merchant ships in the past couple of months.

 

Since Oct. 17, when the Iranian attacks began, proxy terrorist groups have struck U.S. military and civilian targets in Syria and Iraq more than 100 times, most recently rocketing the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Thus far, 66 American soldiers have been injured, with barely a whisper from Washington.

Administration officials defend the U.S. policy of restraint toward Iran and its Houthi proxies as a means of “preventing wider regional conflict” and avoiding a conflict with Iran.

In an effort to put a positive spin on the policy of inaction, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters in a press conference that the U.S. is “succeeding in deterring Iranian-backed militia groups.” That claim collapsed almost immediately amid reports of fresh Houthi attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea near the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

Compounding the irony, Middle East expert Michael Knights made a fantastic assertion in The Hill that since ‘no American service members have died in the recent attacks and the militant group appears to be designing the drone attacks to avoid fatalities…in reality there is no real threat.”

“While it’s true that these Iranian attacks have yet to produce mass casualties among our armed forces, it’s not for lack of Iran trying; they’re aiming to kill,” asserted former UN Ambassador John Bolton in a Washington Post op-ed. The notion that injuries to American soldiers are acceptable and immune to consequences is outrageous, he said.

The article made the point that Iran’s growing aggression and Biden’s “minimal, inadequate response” projects the president’s weakness to the world.

Republican congressmen have sharply disputed the Pentagon’s claim of successful deterrence, denouncing the White House policy as a form of appeasement that will open the door to deadlier assaults from hostile regimes.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and 30 colleagues called on the president in a letter to “confront and put an end to Iran’s threat to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, instead of appeasing Tehran or pressuring Israel to end its military operations. We should not wait for a U.S. combat death to hold Iran accountable; at times effective deterrence requires pre-emptive action.”

The concerns expressed in the Gallagher letter were part of a broader petition by the letter’s signatories regarding reports that the Biden administration is applying pressure on Israel to prematurely end its combat operations in Gaza.

Gallagher and fellow congressmen outlined how such a move “would only give Hamas a lifeline, embolden Iran, and undermine our deterrent posture in the region.”

“We strongly urge you,” the lawmakers wrote, “to focus on leveraging every available diplomatic, economic, and military tool to support Israel’s victory against Iran’s terror infrastructure – on whatever timeline Israel’s military commanders determine necessary to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza and achieve their national security objectives.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-TX, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed Biden for failing to stop the Houthi attacks and urged greater action against the group, including designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

“By prioritizing politics over security, this administration emboldened the Houthis, enabling them to develop more advanced weapons, deepen ties with Iran, and further entrench their control over millions of Yemenis,” McCaul said in a statement.

“It is clear that the Houthis are a threat to our partners across the Middle East, U.S. servicemen and citizens in the region, and freedom of navigation and global commerce.”

 

GOP Presidential Candidate: ‘You’ve Got to Punch Them Hard’

Republican presidential candidates also called out President Biden for his passive response. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Navy veteran, has said American troops are “sitting ducks” in the Middle East.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, has accused Biden of “appeasing Iran” by failing to punish its regime for its aggression. “They only respond to strength,” Haley said. “You’ve got to punch them hard, let them know this won’t be tolerated.”

A few liberal media outlets have been joining the chorus calling on the White House to show muscle, highlighting the widespread dissatisfaction with the present policy.

Politico quoted the assertion of retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, who commanded all U.S. forces in the Middle East during the Trump and Biden presidencies, that Iran and its proxies will only respect a show of force.

“There’s a fine line between avoiding escalation and inviting continued Iranian and Houthi attacks, based on a perceived fecklessness on our part,” Gen. McKenzie said. “The current administration should respond more forcefully to attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.”

Retired Admiral John Miller, the former commander who oversaw all U.S. naval activities in the Middle East until 2022, echoed this line of thought, telling Politico, “We are not taking this seriously. We’re not deterring anybody right now.”

McKenzie’s and Miller’s comments reflect the views of a group of U.S. military officials still at Central Command, the Politico article said.

McKenzie pointed to the events of 2020, when escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S. over President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal culminated in the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military commander, in an American drone strike.

Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” a Pentagon statement said at the time. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”

That action was a gamble, the military expert reflected. It might have triggered a significant escalation but instead, Iran stepped back. McKenzie urged the Biden team to take the gamble. Taking “judicious action in the short-term” will prevent “a larger problem in the long-term,” he advised.

Houthi assaults on commercial shipping have increasingly drawn U.S. Navy warships into the line of fire. On December 16, the Houthis in Yemen launched a swarm attack of Kamikaze drones, also known as loitering munitions. The USS warship, the USS Carney, shot them all down. The attack reportedly involved 14 drones.

Then on the following Wednesday, the destroyer USS Mason took out yet another drone headed toward the ship.

Even prior to these attacks, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin dismissed the notion that there was no serious danger to American troops from Houthi missiles and drones. At a Dec. 18 press conference in Israel, Austin said, “Regarding the Houthis, these attacks are reckless, dangerous, and they violate international law. They must stop.”

 

Pres. Biden’s Notion of Deterrence

Despite Austin’s tough talk, the White House’s response to the pressure for more forceful action has fallen far short of what is needed, critics say.

The Biden Administration has pushed for a coalition of military assets from multiple nations to defend commercial ships in the Red Sea, and “provide reassurance” to ship owners and insurers.

Called Operation Prosperity Guardian, the operative word here is “guard,” inasmuch as the ships would not be permitted to take offensive striking action. Top Biden administration officials say that retaliating against the Houthis is “not the right course of action at this time.”

Austin last week announced the new defensive operation, calling it “an important new multinational initiative” to deal with the Houthi attacks.

Warships from Britain, France, Japan and other nations are already in the Red Sea and would provide “umbrella” protection for any maritime vessel under attack. It just takes “American leadership to ramp up naval capabilities,” senior administration officials said.

The problem is that however many naval assets are deployed, the Houthis have no incentive to stop their attacks as long as they are permitted to retain their supply of missiles. Despite the outrage of Houthi attacks, the Biden administration has insisted that retaliating against the terror group is not the right approach at this time.

Another obstacle to resolving the crisis is that the conflict between the Houthis and Operation Prosperity Guardian could drag out for many months, while major shipping companies continue re-routing their vessels around Africa, adding weeks to their journey and raising prices of oil, gas and other commodities.

In addition, Politico has highlighted that the Pentagon is worried about prohibitive costs as missiles costing $2 million apiece will be fired to take down $2,000 Houthi/Iranian drones.

“The dollar discrepancy is formidable,” the publication notes. “Production times on the $2,000 drones is also far shorter than on $2 million missiles, so the Houthis will have a logistics advantage.”

“If the Red Sea remains a no-go zone for some time, it looks like the Western world is going to have to brace for another wave of inflation,” an op-ed in the British Telegraph noted. “In just the past week, global shipping companies have diverted around 35 billion dollars worth of cargo.”

The article suggested that “the shock to trade could be much like the one we experienced in lockdown when global supply chains seized up, although in truth the current crisis could be worse.”

 

Trump Listed Houthis as a Terror Group; Biden Reversed the Designation

The Houthis emerged in the 1980s and 90s as a guerrilla movement in Yemen’s long-running civil war and have closely aligned with Iran in recent years, an AIPAC report explained.

In 2014, the Houthis seized control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and took over most of the country, forcing the Yemeni government into internal exile. The Houthis’ motto is “Allah is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

For the past several years, Tehran has supplied the movement with everything from small arms and rifles to sophisticated drones and ballistic missiles.

The burgeoning Houthi crisis began when the rebel faction managed to land on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship and hijack it with ease. In a propaganda video clip, cheering Arabs stamping on American and Israeli flags, circled the captured ship led by triumphant Houthi rebels.

At the time, many foreign policy experts dismissed the Houthis as a troublesome but isolated ragtag faction dependent on Iran for funding and weapons, too remote from the United States and Israel to pose much of a threat.

This turned out to be a serious underestimation. Backed by Iran, the group has mushroomed into a sizable military force that has taken control of a vast amount of Yemeni territory and 80 percent of Yemen’s population.

The commandeering of the Galaxy Leader by the Houthis was an early sign that the rebel group was about to erupt onto the global stage as a major power player in Middle East geopolitics.

Back in 2021, the Houthis were branded a terrorist organization by then President Donald Trump shortly before he left office. Against all logic, Joe Biden reversed that designation almost immediately after becoming president.

Under fire from multiple quarters for abandoning American servicemen as “sitting ducks” in danger of being fired upon, Biden is now “seriously reviewing that decision,” according to White House communications coordinator John Kirby.

Re-listing the Houthis as a terrorist group would outlaw the act of conducting business with the Houthis. It would also bar members of the movement from entering the U.S. and render it unlawful for U.S. nationals to provide them with “material support or resources.”

 

Long-Term Goal: Seize Control of Middle East Oil Production

Central to the Houthi assault on Israel is their deeply embedded Jew-hatred and desire to align with Iran’s anti-Israel agenda. The terror group portrays itself as protectors of the Palestinian cause, framing its actions as acts of self-defense against foreign interference.

The Houthis joined fellow Iranian-backed groups Hamas and Hezbollah in attacking Israel in October 2023, launching attack drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles at Israel from more than 1,200 miles away.

On Oct. 31, the Houthis launched failed missile and drone attacks that targeted Eilat, an Israeli Red Sea tourist resort, causing explosions in two Egyptian towns near the Israeli border.

On Nov. 8, the Houthis claimed to have downed a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone and launched missile strikes toward Israel​​​​. On Nov. 14, the Houthis launched additional ballistic missiles at Israeli targets, including Eilat.

Gradually, their missiles and drones began to hit targets indiscriminately, including merchant tankers crossing the Red Sea that had no connection with Israel. These actions have prompted the theory that the Houthis and their paymaster, Iran, have broader regional goals in addition to attacking the Jewish state.

“The Red Sea is one of the most important routes for shipping oil… This is the entrance to the Suez Canal and the major international traffic that the Houthis are trying to block,” senior military analyst and retired General Jack Keane told Fox News.

“What’s happening here is Iran is broadcasting its strategic goal that it has pursued for 43 years; that it can dominate control over the flow of oil coming out of the Middle East. The Houthis are Iran’s instrument in achieving that objective.”

The retired 4-star general expressed his astonishment and dismay that the Biden administration has steadfastly declined to take out the military assets of the Houthi terror group.

“I am absolutely stunned that we’re still sitting there in a defensive mode,” he said. “To shut these people down, you have to take away their capability to launch attacks.  So, you go after that. You go after the rockets. You go after the missiles. You go after their entire command and control system.

“And I also believe you go after the Iranians on this because they’re really calling the shots here,” the military expert said. “The Houthis are Iranian proxies, with their drones and ballistic and cruise missiles believed to be supplied by Iran.

“Their leadership can be targeted and military infrastructure such as missile systems, drone storage sites, radars and coastal guns can be hit by missile and air strikes,” Gen. Keane said. “Why we’re still in this defensive role makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

 

White House Admits Iran ‘Deeply Involved’

After refusing to name Iran as the behind-the-scenes aggressor, the Biden administration finally confirmed that Teheran has been “deeply involved” in planning Houthi attacks on commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea.

Citing declassified intelligence information, the White House said the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen rely on “Iranian-provided monitoring systems” to launch attacks on commercial ships.

“Iranian-provided tactical intelligence has been critical in enabling Houthi targeting of maritime vessels,” National Security spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said.

“The Houthis are replicating Iran’s longstanding strategy of seizing civilian vessels in maritime choke points, as well as the specific tactics Iran has used, like airlifting hijackers on to the vessel from helicopters, exactly as in the Houthis’ seizure of the Galaxy Leader in November,” the official said.

“The Houthis have apparently used Iranian KAS-04 drones, including some that were shot down by the American destroyer the USS Carney last week,” Watson added. “We know that Iranian support to these Houthi operations is critical.”

Even with irrefutable evidence of Iranian funding and operational support, and the Houthis’ growing capacity to foment terror and disrupt global trade, the Biden administration has steadfastly refused to go after their military assets, including launch sites for missiles and command centers.

 

*****

Perils of Underestimating Houthi Threat

Over the past two months, the Houthis have targeted vessels involving more than 35 nations transiting to and from Israel or the Suez Canal through the Bab-al-Mandab Strait.

This is not the first time the terror group has carried out terrorist attacks outside of Yemen. In September 2019, drones were used to attack oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility, saying it was retaliating for Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war.

The United States, France, Germany, Britain and Saudi Arabia all held Iran responsible for those attacks, which exacerbated the 2019 Persian Gulf crisis.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer; at the time, it rolled out about 12 million barrels of petroleum products a day. The attack caused large fires at the processing facility, temporarily shutting it down which cut the country’s oil production by half. This caused some degree of destabilization of global financial markets until repairs were made and the facility returned to full capacity.

That slice of recent history underscores the urgency of neutralizing the Houthis today to prevent them from manipulating control of oil production in the Middle East, of which they are potentially capable, experts say. Their ability through unrelenting missile attacks to impose a de facto blockade on the Suez Canal which would bar commercial ships from the Red Sea, must be blocked as well.

The United States must do more than coordinate a task force to respond to Iran and the Houthi threat, the AIPAC report said. The document urged, first and foremost, the re-designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

“The flow of arms and money from Iran to the Houthis must be stopped. The Treasury Department should increase enforcement of sanctions on any entities engaged in such transfers and the U.S. Navy should step up interdictions of arms shipments,” the article detailed.

The United States must continue working with our allies to counter Houthi attacks and ensure the freedom of navigation throughout the region, the report added.

“Finally, the U.S. must increase enforcement of sanctions on Iran — the primary funder of the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah terror organizations.”

 

 

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