March 6, 2024No Comments

The Houthis and Iran: A Complex Nexus Threatening Regional Stability

Authors: Will Kingston-Cox, Ilaria Lorusso, Margherita Ceserani, Shahin Modarres - Iran Team

The Russo-Iranian strategic military cooperation in the Red Sea unfolds against the backdrop of a multifaceted and changing geopolitical scenario. The evolving situation in the area prompts a reevaluation of the Russo-Iranian partnership, drawing parallels with their collaboration in Ukraine. While historical dynamics may inform the alliance, the Red Sea theater introduces a maritime dimension, reflecting an adaptive strategy. The interstate treaty between Tehran and Moscow further solidifies their alliance, positioning Iran strategically alongside Russia and China, as geopolitical alignments shift post-Russia's invasion of Ukraine1

As Iran rejects US’s accusation of its support to the Houthis’ attacks, in turn linked to the conflict unfolding in the Gaza Strip, the complexities in the Red Sea underscore the delicate nature of their partnership and the need for a nuanced analysis considering historical context and evolving geopolitical dynamics. In this context, this article will attempt at providing such a summary of the Russo-Iranian partnership so far, and what prospect for the latter the new scenario in the Red Sea holds2

On 17 January 2024, Maria Zakharova, the Kremlin’s spokeswoman, announced that Russia and Iran will sign a new comprehensive interstate cooperation agreement imminently3. This treaty, a furtherance of the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership already evident in Ukraine and before, will serve to consolidate this strategic partnership and entrench it both politically and legally. The signing, as told by Zakharova, has been expedited by the changing international context, a reference perhaps to the global discord resultant from conflicts in Ukraine and, pertinently, the Red Sea region. Such a contention is affirmed by prior comments from the Kremlin in November 2023, in which it was announced that significant work in deepening and developing “military-technical cooperation” was under way4

It is important to emphasise the importance of such an agreement’s final draft being catalysed by events in the Red Sea, pertinently those relating to the Yemeni Houthis and the Red Sea shipping route. British and American strikes, described as “defensive” by NATO, on Yemeni Houthis on 11th January were condemned by Moscow, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denouncing them as “illegitimate” and that the Western coalition were seeking to manipulate the international legal order. Tehran’s stance, too, was resolute. Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry, derided the coalition strikes as “arbitrary” and “[in clear breach of Yemeni’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity…against international law.” 

The level to which Iran involves itself, be it politically, diplomatically, or militarily, will undoubtedly concern the actions of policymakers in Moscow. The degree to which the Russo-Iranian politically-military strategic partnership will be seen in the Red Sea will depend on the extent to which the current Houthi conflict embroils Tehran. 

Since the 1979 revolution, the Houthis have been intricately tied to the Islamic Republic of Iran, functioning as one of its proxy groups. This relationship unfolds against the backdrop of international sanctions, shaping Iran's defense strategy. Unable to engage in research development or scientific collaboration in defense due to sanctions, Iran has devised a defense doctrine grounded in two key pillars: proxy groups and a ballistic program.

The first pillar, involving proxy groups, has seen Iran establish and support various entities across Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Israel, and neighboring countries. The primary objective seems to be destabilizing regional and international security, and strategically deploying conflicts as leverage during negotiations.

The turning point emerged after the October 7th attack, prompting the Islamic Republic to perceive a threat to what it terms the "axis of resistance." In response to diminishing Hamas influence within the Gaza Strip and an effort to alleviate pressure on the group, Iran allegedly directed the Houthis in Yemen to escalate security destabilisation in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait region.

Source: An armed Yemeni sits on a boat in front of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship - EPA/via BBC News - Keystone archivio

Backed and provided by Iran, the Houthis pose a multifaceted threat against maritime security and Israel in the region. The first dimension involves the use of missiles sourced from Iran, followed by the deployment of drones also supplied by the Islamic Republic. Lastly, the Houthis reportedly possess and have been strategically placing sea mines since 2021 in the Red Sea, adding another layer of complexity to the threat.

Considering that a substantial 12% of international trade traverses the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the ongoing situation becomes increasingly untenable5. The intersection of geopolitical interests, proxy dynamics, and strategic maneuvers underscores the urgent need for international attention and diplomatic resolution to avert potential catastrophe in this crucial maritime passage.

While the Houthis, threaten commercial shipping in the Red Sea, oil has so far continued flowing. According to one Houthis political leader, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, maritime routes around Yemen are safe for Chinese and Russian vessels, as long as they are not associated with Israel. Moscow, while publicly indicating support for Washington's efforts to maintain order in the Red Sea, has only a small amount of its trade passing through the Suez Canal. Moreover, Russian officials suggest that the Red Sea crisis could potentially redirect shipping to the Northern Sea Route or the North-South Transport Corridor via Iran to the Indian Ocean. 

All in all, the renewed Russo-Iranian strategic partnership, in the Middle East space on this occasion, represents an adaptive response to the changing geopolitical landscape. The intricacies of the Red Sea, added to the Iranian grip on the Houthis, brings another dimension to the relationship between the two states. In this article, we have demonstrated how the partnership's strategic implications and the evolving nature of conflicts in the region underscore the need for a multilevel approach while addressing today’s complexities and potential risks in the Red Sea.

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March 1, 2024No Comments

Turbulent Waters: Assessing the Red Sea Crisis

Authors: Idriss El Alaoui Talibi and Michele Mignona (Edited by Iris Raith) - Defense & Procurement Team


Since October 2023, tensions in the Red Sea have reached unprecedented levels, largely due to a series of aggressive manoeuvres by Houthi forces stationed in Yemen. These actions have included multiple drone and missile assaults targeting both Israeli territories and various vessels—both commercial and military—operating in the region. The Houthi attacks are interpreted as direct responses to Israel's military campaign in Gaza.

To address the escalating threat, the U.S. began Operation Prosperity Guardian in December, a multinational military initiative aimed at safeguarding the Red Sea against further Houthi incursions. Subsequently, beginning on January 12, the U.S. and UK have jointly executed targeted strikes against Houthi installations within Yemen in the aftermath of the beginning of Operation Poseidon Archer. This consists of a coalition of states willing to conduct offensive operations in the region to deteriorate Houti’s military infrastructure. 

Both President Biden and Prime Minister Sunak emphasized that the military strikes were a direct response to the attacks on ships in the Red Sea, which endangered trade and threatened freedom of navigation. This is especially pertinent given that approximately 15% of global seaborne trade typically passes through the Suez Canal. Consequently, this shift is causing substantial global economic losses

Who are the Houthis? 

The Houthis are an armed political and religious group supporting Yemen's Shia Muslim minority. Aligned with Iran's "axis of resistance", they emerged in the 1990s under Hussein al-Houthi's leadership, now led by his brother Abdul Malik. Since 2000, they have battled the Yemeni government for autonomy in northern Yemen, expanding influence during the 2011 Arab Revolt. By 2016, they had seized significant territories in Yemen’s West

Concerned about potential Houthi-Iran alignment, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition to intervene but has been unable to dislodge Houthi control despite years of airstrikes and battles. Although Iran denies supplying the Houthis weapons, instead claiming political support, there is widespread recognition of a tangible Iran-Houthi relationship. In this context, Houthi attacks may pose a greater threat to global security than Gaza's conflict. Indeed, based on pragmatic security and economic calculations, the Houthis' actions could disrupt the delicate regional equilibrium, carrying significant escalation risks despite their relatively small size.

Regional and International Responses 

In response to the Houthis’ attacks and their impacts on international trade and freedom of navigation, Operation Prosperity Guardian was launched to safeguard the security of the southern part of the Red Sea. This operation includes over 20 countries, including the UK, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, with Bahrain being the only Arab country in the coalition.

This initiative announced the beginning of a series of attempts, outside of the umbrella of Operation Prosperity Guardian, to repel the Houthis’ attacks, as more than a dozen separate attacks have been conducted, 11 of which have been conducted by the U.S. only. Indeed, since the beginning of the Houthis’ attacks on various vessels, the U.S. has seen its involvement in the region increase with intensified efforts to put a stop to the Houthis’ attacks. A month ago, the U.S. Department of State officially announced the designation of Ansarallah (Houthis) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group. Moreover, both the UK and the EU are expected to launch separate initiatives to counter the Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea. 

Source: Image by Jack Moreh from StockVault

Economic Implications

As mentioned, these assaults against commercial vessels have caused deep economic losses, as it pushed shipping companies to steer clear of this vital trade route. Thus, shipping vessels are now constrained to change itineraries and take the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, situated at the southern tip of Africa. This alternative corridor extends the journey by over 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km) and nearly two weeks of sailing time for each voyage, thereby substantially inflating shipping expenses.

According to statistics, more than 20,000 vessels navigate the Red Sea yearly. As such, this crisis creates a serious challenge to both international maritime security and international trade. Although the Houthis are said only to be targeting vessels linked to Israeli interests, the risk of security incidents in this vital shipping lane is seriously affecting the carriage of commodities between major world economies, including the oil-exporting countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the European Union, the U.S. and China.

Alongside these countries, India also ranks high among the most affected countries by the ongoing Red Sea crisis. Indeed, India is heavily dependent on the Red Sea route through the Suez Canal for its trade with Europe, North America, North Africa and the Middle East, as these regions represent more than 50% of India’s exports ($217bn), according to CRISIL Ratings. This showcases the extent of this crisis’ implications. 

Looking forward

The current Red Sea crisis has highlighted the unequivocal importance of this location for geopolitics. With both commercial and strategic implications, the Houthi’s actions have pushed the international community to cooperate to counter these attacks and safeguard freedom of navigation. While the U.S. was eager to engage a military coalition with the initiation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, the EU also began to step out of its shadow by introducing Operation Aspides, if so, with a delay due to its still reactive strategy. It remains to be seen if and how this crisis will de-escalate in the future, as this will be influenced by the war in Gaza and the destabilization of the region. Nevertheless, next to military cooperation, it will certainly be vital to engage in diplomatic efforts aiming to de-escalate the enduring Yemeni conflict by including all parties involved and affected.