A satellite image shows the Belize-flagged and UK-owned cargo ship Rubymar, which was attacked by Yemen's Houthis on the Red Sea, February 20, 2024.

Iran-Backed Houthis Attack US Ship, Undeterred By Air Strikes

Monday, 02/26/2024

The US military said early on Monday that Iran-backed Houthis launched one anti-ship ballistic missile likely targeting the MV Torm Thor, but missed the US-flagged, owned and operated oil tanker, in the Gulf of Aden on February 24.

The US military also shot down in "self-defense" two one-way unmanned aerial attack vehicles over the southern Red Sea on Sunday, Central Command (CENTCOM) said. This followed joint US and British air strikes on a string of Houthi targets in Yemen.

Iran accused the United States and Britain of escalating tensions on Sunday, following the two countries' joint strikes. The Houthis have received extensive Iranian military support and control a substantial part of Yemen.

This was the fourth round of joint strikes to “degrade” the capabilities of the Houthis and came after a marked increase in attacks by the Iran-backed group on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden last week.

Shortly after the attack, Iran’s foreign ministry issued a statement, accusing the US and Britain of seeking to “escalate” regional tensions and “expand the scope of war and instability.”

A Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 has Paveway IV weapons loaded by Weapon Technicians in support of current ongoing operations against Houthi targets in Yemen, February 22, 2024.

“This kind of arbitrary and aggressive military operation, aside from aggravating insecurity and instability in the region, will not achieve anything for these aggressor countries,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nassar Kanaani.

Iran is known to be the prime sponsor of the Houthis, funding, arming, and even “serving side by side” their forces on the ground. Iranian officials maintain that the Houthis don’t take orders from Tehran, but the relative quiet in Syria and Iraq following the targeted assassinations of a few high-ranking IRGC commanders and US air strikes show that Iran may hold just enough leverage to stop its proxies if and when it finds the alternative too costly.

The Houthis too had all but stopped their attacks for a couple of weeks since early February. But they resumed targeting commercial vessels last week, including a US-owned, flagged and operated ship and a UK-owned, Belize-flagged cargo ship, which remains anchored half-sunk in the Red Sea, leaving behind a 30 km oil slick.

In just three days last week, the Houthis targeted or hit more ships than the preceding 3 weeks combined. Some experts linked the sudden rise in attacks to Iran’s spy ship Behshad resuming operation in the region after 17 days anchoring near a Chinese port-base in Djibouti.

The extensive, joint strike early Sunday (Yemen Time) seems to have been a direct response to the resumption of Houthi attacks –and the targeting of US and UK ships, in particular. About 18 sites across a number of locations were hit in the recent strike, targeting missiles, launchers, rockets, drones and unmanned surface and underwater vehicles, according to US officials.

"We will continue to make clear to the Houthis that they will bear the consequences if they do not stop their illegal attacks,” US defense secretary Lloyd Austin said following the operation, reiterating that the objective was to “further disrupt and degrade the capabilities of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia."

Critics of the Biden administration say the said objective is too conservative as it does not aim to stop and deter. Therefore, they argue, it’s a failure even if it succeeds. Iran can (and does) attempt replenishing the ‘degraded’ capabilities, despite US disruptions –such as their seizure of Iranian weapons shipment to the Houthis.

For more than three months –since the Houthis began their attacks in support of Palestinians following the Israeli onslaught on Gaza– President Biden has been warning that he will not tolerate Houthi attacks against commercial shipping.

But the attacks have continued and have even escalated, taking into account the recent targeting of British and American ships, and the Houthi announcement that the blockade of the Red Sea has been extended from Israel-related vessels to those of the US and the UK.

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