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Iran's Asymmetric Warfare: Challenging U.S. Defenses in the Middle East

Israel and the United States are working together to reduce the violence in Gaza, while Iranian-backed groups are simultaneously launching a coordinated attack from Yemen and Iraq.

The Houthi movement in Yemen caught the attention of Middle East observers when it launched drones and cruise missiles at Israel on October 19. While many had anticipated the group's saber-rattling to be nothing more than empty threats, given their history of inaccurate long-range weapons and previous empty threats against Israel, the continued Houthi attacks demonstrate the group's full integration into Iran's informal regional alliance, the Axis of Resistance. The Axis of Resistance's expansion and activation in the Israel-Hamas conflict has also complicated efforts by Israel and the United States to contain the conflict to Gaza.

For more than a decade, Iran has been working to strengthen its relationship with the Houthis. Despite limited resources, Iran has successfully transformed the group from a local armed opposition into a regional power. The civil war in Yemen, which began in 2014-2015 and coincided with positive developments for Iran in Iraq and Syria, provided an opportunity for the Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to deploy experienced senior operatives to Yemen. Before this period, Hezbollah operatives were the main Iranian agents working with the Houthis. However, Houthi leadership was also actively seeking support from Iran, both out of practicality and shared ideology. The Houthi leadership found Iran's revisionist behavior and revolutionary model appealing, and incorporated these ideas into their fundamentalist interpretation of Zaydi Islam (a branch of Shia Islam prevalent in northern Yemen). From a practical standpoint, the Houthi leadership saw no other potential regional partner.

The Quds Force has facilitated the transport of advanced and long-range weapons to the Houthis, which have been utilized against Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the Houthis primarily used military equipment from Yemen's arsenal, including outdated Scud missiles. Within a few years, the Houthis began using a variety of drones and missiles with increasing ranges, including short- and long-range "kamikaze" drones and ballistic and cruise missiles. This arrangement benefited both parties, as the Houthis were able to test and use Iranian-supplied weapons to gain an asymmetrical advantage over their opponents, including Saudi Arabia's Patriot air defense system and the UAE's THAAD missile defense system. The success of the Houthis and other Iranian-backed Iraqi militias provided valuable case studies for the development and refinement of these capabilities, which were further demonstrated by Iranian drones in Ukraine in October 2022.

"The Houthis' attacks on Israel are a clear sign of Iran's growing influence in the region and its willingness to use its proxies to challenge its adversaries." - Dennis Ross, former U.S. Middle East advisor

The support provided to the Houthis was not solely aimed at exploiting a proxy in the ongoing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia; it also aimed to reinforce the Axis of Resistance and create new threats against both Israel and the United States. Established Iranian-backed groups, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, have historically served as a deterrent against potential Israeli attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities. On the other hand, Iran-backed groups in Iraq have sought to expel the United States from the region. For example, Kataib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al Haq have attacked U.S. troops in the past, and have continued to do so in recent years in efforts to drive the United States out of Iraq. Presently, the Houthis not only complicate the security situation in Saudi Arabia, but also pose threats to the United States and Israel. Although their weapon range is not precise, it covers areas such as southern Israel, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. The threat posed by the Houthis requires U.S. troops to maintain a heightened defensive posture in regional bases such as Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti and al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, it restricts the use of Israeli air defense systems to defense against attacks from the south, which can limit the impact of a potential Hezbollah offensive from the north. Lastly, the Houthis' access to the waterways surrounding Yemen enables Iranian-led escalations against Israeli maritime vessels, including commercial ones, and adds to potential hazards for maritime traffic in the strategic Bab al Mandab Strait.

Israel and the United States now face the challenge of dealing with the increased presence of Iranian-sourced weapons and capabilities, which has been made evident through recent attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, as well as the activities of the Yemen Houthis. These actions, which have been coordinated by Iran, are aimed at both imposing costs on the United States for supporting Israel and limiting additional U.S. assistance. Additionally, they seek to deter Israel from launching a ground offensive in Gaza. Iraq-based groups have attacked U.S. forces at least 66 times since the start of the conflict, resulting in over 60 injured troops. The Houthis have also targeted Israel, shooting down an MQ-9 Reaper drone off the western Yemeni coastline, seizing the Galaxy Leader (a ship partially owned by an Israeli company), and firing missiles near the USS Mason after it responded to a distress call from a commercial ship. The Quds Force, which has long sought to build a multi-front attack campaign by supporting the various members of the Axis of Resistance, has now successfully accomplished this goal through these recent actions.

The U.S. military appears to have been caught off-guard by the recent attacks carried out by the Quds Force, despite years of planning. While drone and rocket attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria are not new, the frequency and intensity of the recent attacks mark a change. In response, the U.S. has struck Iran-linked bases and facilities in Syria and Kataib Hezbollah facilities in Iraq, but these attacks have not halted the hostilities. It is likely that the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a unified group of Iranian-backed Iraqi forces, now views Syria-based assets as expendable, while keeping high-value targets in Iraq out of the line of fire. The recent internet outage in Yemen, which occurred after a Houthi attack on Eilat, Israel, has not prompted a direct response from the United States or Israel, suggesting a desire to contain the conflict. Overall, Iran and its allies can continue to escalate their attacks without facing significant consequences.

The Pentagon has consistently emphasized its right to retaliate against attacks at a time and place of its choosing, yet this stance has failed to deter Iranian-backed groups from resuming their hostile activities. Iran's challenge remains unaddressed. Despite Austin's call for these attacks to stop and his warning that he will take "necessary" measures to safeguard U.S. troops, the U.S. response to Iranian-backed groups is primarily punitive rather than deterrent. So, why would these groups change their approach?

Until the United States acknowledges that Iranian-backed groups have considered the potential consequences of retaliatory strikes and are undeterred by them, the U.S. military and its regional partners will continue to be on the defensive. This situation benefits Iran, which has been able to manipulate the situation without suffering any significant consequences. While this approach may prevent a wider war for the time being, it is not a sustainable solution. Ultimately, the United States will need to assert and protect its own interests in the region, and this will likely require a more proactive stance.


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