Israel-Iran Escalation in Yemen: Indications and Possibilities

EPC | 11 Feb 2021

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks between Israel on the one hand and Iran and its allies, especially the Houthis, on the other hand. Each side has escalated on the ground and in the political and media space, and the two sides exchanged accusations, warnings, and threats with harsh responses. An important part of this escalation is related to the increasing concern of the Israelis about the development of the military capabilities of the Houthi group in Yemen and their access to advanced Iranian military technologies, including ballistic missiles and advanced unmanned aircraft capable of striking Israel, in the light of the possibility that Yemen may be the starting point of Iranian operations targeting Israel and US targets in revenge for the killing of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh.

This paper reviews the indicators of escalation between Israel and Iran and the role of the Houthis therein, examines the possibility of a clash between the two parties in Yemen, and explores the potential consequences of this escalation, both at the level of the conflict in Yemen and at the level of the regional confrontation between Iran and its opponents.

Indicators of the escalation

On 26 December 2020, the Israeli army spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said, in an interview with the Saudi news website Elaph, that Israel is tracking Iranian movements throughout the region, is anticipating an Iranian attack from Yemen and Iraq, and has information confirming that Iran is working in both countries to develop unmanned aircraft and smart missiles capable of hitting targets inside Israel. Those allegations have been confirmed by unofficial reports indicating that Iran has supplied the Houthis with advanced missiles and drones.[1] The Israeli media continues to publish reports, articles and analyses focusing on the threat that the Houthis have come to pose to Israel.

Today, Israel is putting itself on alert, and is making some moves and military repositioning. According to the Israeli Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, instructions were issued to the Israeli army to draw up military operation plans for Iran.[2] The Israeli army has recently transferred batteries of the Iron Dome and Patriot missile defense systems to Eilat in the south of the country.

Senior Israeli military officials have issued strong-worded warnings to Iran and its allies. The Chief of General Staff warned against carrying out any attack against Israeli targets, stressing that "the response would be very expensive", and that any party that participates partially or fully, from near or far, in any attack against Israeli targets will be targeted. They came out with statements that boast about the capabilities of the Israeli military force. The army spokesperson, for example, has underlined that Israeli submarines sail everywhere and that the activity of the Israeli army includes all areas of the far and near Middle East.

On the other hand, Iran, which had previously admitted placing its expertise and technology at the disposal of the "Yemeni people" (meaning the Houthis), believes that there is a conspiracy to fabricate a war (according to a tweet by the Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif on Twitter on 31 December 2020), stating that it is monitoring the Israeli and US military moves, and warning of a strong and large-scale response to any attack. The spokesperson for the Iranian armed forces Brigadier General Abu al-Fadl Shikaraji (also Abolfazl Shekarchi), promised to “annihilate the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa” in the event that Israel attacked Iran's nuclear facilities (Russia Today, 29 January 2021). The spokesperson for the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Iranian Parliament Abu al-Fadl Amoui said that his country would consider the arrival of any Israeli submarine to the Gulf waters an act of hostility, and that it would be a target for Iranian forces. The army commanders called on their units to be alert and prepared. In a clear show of force, the Iranian army recently carried out a major exercise in the Iranian desert, the Gulf of Oman and the northern Indian Ocean, which included the announcement of testing new technology for drones and smart missiles that were used in this exercise on a large scale. The army said that they hit their targets in the Gulf and the northern Indian Ocean. The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hussein Bagheri stated that Iran is planning to send warships and conduct patrols in the Red Sea to secure Iran's oil and commercial fleet.

The Houthis share with their Iranian allies the belief in the existence of a conspiracy and a plot to ignite a war and escalate in Yemen in coordination between Israel and the Gulf states, underlining the capability of the Houthis to target Israel. Commenting on the Israeli statements, the Deputy Prime Minister in the unrecognised government of Sanaa Jalal al-Ruwaishan said that they would strike sensitive targets in Israel in the event that it commits "any stupidity against Yemen". The Houthi Defence Minister Major General Mohammad Nasser al-Atefi had said in late 2020 that a bank of military and naval targets in Israel has already been identified. The Houthi Al-Masirah TV channel quoted the head of the intelligence agency in the Houthi government Abdullah al-Hakim as saying that the government is monitoring all Israeli movements in the region and is following all its hostile plans against Yemen, and that Israel must understand Sanaa's warnings of the results of any adventure.

Possibilities of an Iranian-Israeli clash in Yemen

Tehran is under pressure to attack Israel through the Houthis. Tehran considers revenge for the killing of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh and for the mysterious explosions that affected its nuclear programme facilities a matter of political, security and military honour. Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to retaliate against the "killers", asserting that they will not be safe anywhere. Besides, Israel continues to target Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, given that Israelis say they will continue to do so.[3] Tehran also needs to display strength, exert some pressure, and prove its influence and power to the international community in the face of the economic pressures and blockade it is exposed to. In this regard, it needs to convey a message that it can do a lot and cause a lot of trouble. The designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation by the previous US administration, prior its review by the Biden administration, increased Tehran's chances of pushing its allies to attack Israel, especially in the light of what is said, namely that Israeli pressure played a decisive role in the Trump administration’s decision on this designation, which raised the fears and anger of the Houthis.

However, the Houthis are unlikely to attack Israel, at least in the short term. Together with their Iranian allies, they need to de-escalate to encourage the new US administration to adopt new, lighter approaches in dealing with the Iranian issue and the Yemen war. To the extent that Iran needs Washington’s return to the nuclear deal and that the sanctions imposed by the previous administration be lifted, the Houthis hope that Washington would fully reconsider their designation as a terrorist group. The US administration’s statement that it is reviewing a number of decisions made by the previous administration, and its declaration of its support for ending the war in Yemen, will encourage the Iranians and the Houthis and increase their hopes for a change in Washington’s policies and positions, and thus discourage any plans to attack Israel or Israeli interests at this stage. The acceptance by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of the Iranian case against the US sanctions is a partial victory for Tehran, and an additional reason for calm and avoiding any escalation.

The Iranians and their allies are aware that attacking Israel entails serious risks. Any such attack would surely draw the new US administration to the side of Tel Aviv, provoke the stance of the international community against them, and relieve international pressure seeking to end the conflict in Yemen and thus threaten to resume the war against the Houthis in a stronger and more determined manner. Even if an anonymous attack is used, such as the Abqaiq and Khurais attack and the recent attacks on Riyadh airport with which the Houthis denied to have any connection, such an attack, in addition to sacrificing the political benefits of a declared attack and not meeting the needs or achieving special goals inside Iran and the Axis of Resistance, would still entail the same risks mentioned above, as it would eventually be linked to Iran and its allies, given that no one threatens to target Israel except Iran and its allies.

As for Israel, the issue is no longer just a geopolitical threat related to the expansion of Iranian influence. The security challenges for it that are posed by Tehran and its allies have become larger and more complex. Besides, targeting the capabilities of a group that Israeli officials say threatens with a new game would serve to reduce and encircle those threats. Targeting Israel by the Houthis would secure a number of other targets. Israel is concerned about the change taking place in the White House and does not want the new US administration to return to the nuclear agreement or sign a similar agreement, considering that this would be a bad matter and a practical and strategic mistake, in the words of the Israeli Chief of Staff. If the issue of the Houthis' possession of weapons capable of targeting Israel fails to convey a message to this administration, or to draw its attention to the increasing threat posed by the Houthis and Iran to Israel's security, and to discourage it from returning to the nuclear agreement and lifting sanctions on Iran, then attacking the Houthis could do the trick.

Possible scenarios for the Israeli-Iranian escalation in Yemen

1) The tense situation persists as it is without leading to any military confrontation in Yemen. What helps to realise this scenario is the lack of clarity regarding the position of the new administration and its delay in taking decisions on many issues related to the Iranian issue and the conflict in Yemen. According to the statement of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the administration still needs a long time to decide whether to re-join the nuclear agreement. For its part, Tehran does not seem ready for easy cooperation with the US administration. In a press conference with his Turkish counterpart in Istanbul on 29 January 2021, for example, the Iranian Foreign Minister underlined that his country will not accept US demands to back down from accelerating its nuclear programme before Washington lifts the sanctions imposed on it.

2) The confrontation scenario. According to this scenario, Israel will target the Houthi missile capabilities. Israel has more incentives and motives to launch attacks like this than its opponents. Besides, the limitations for Israel are less than they are for its enemies. In fact, this is what Israel is doing in both Syria and Iraq. The chances of the realisation for this scenario would be higher if Washington appears to be heading towards settling the dispute with the Iranians and the return to the nuclear deal.

The possibility that Israel’s targeting of the Houthis would cause a direct clash with Iran remains weak, due to the same considerations that prevent Tehran from responding to the Israeli attacks on the militias associated with it in Syria and Iraq. The statements of Iranian officials seemed keen to link any move or military response against Israel to the latter’s attack on Iran. They have not expressed any indication that they would directly intervene to support their Houthi allies. However, the expansion of the engagement to broader regional confrontations may occur for accidental reasons.

The implications of the escalation

The Israeli-Iranian escalation in Yemen serves to consolidate the borders of the existing alliances today, and is expected to reflect positively on the cohesion of the Iranian-Houthi alliance. It makes the Houthis more dependent on Tehran and more connected to it. For their part, the Iranians in general will seek to exploit this escalation to expand their influence on and control over their allies as the escalation will make the Houthis feel that they will remain a target for the Israelis. That escalation is also expected to contribute to the cohesion of the coalition facing the Houthis, to strengthen the emerging relationship between Israel and some of the Arab countries confronting Iran, and to eventually serve the process of regional normalisation with Israel.

At the military level, and in the event that this escalation leads to the launch of Israeli operations against the Houthis, the latter would attack whatever their hands can reach. A number of Houthi leaders had previously stated that the interests of Israel and of its allies in the Red Sea region would become a legitimate target. The Houthis would seek to strike ships sailing to and from Israel in the Red Sea, and to increase their activities of threatening ships and the shipping route in the Red Sea in general, as a way to exert pressure on the international community. Any military confrontations will have economic repercussions. They would pose a threat to the shipping line in the Red Sea and make it insecure, which would end in obstructing international trade traffic and high costs of transportation and commercial insurance. As an arena for such confrontations, Yemen’s economic situation will be more affected, especially if its coasts are declared military zones. Those economic repercussions will in turn be reflected in the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis.

In its repercussions on the political track in the Yemeni conflict, this escalation, in the Yemeni side of it, provides an opportunity that the Iranians seek to exploit to keep the Houthis away from peace which threatens with the loss of an important card for the Iranians, namely the continuation of the conflict in this country, and through which they blackmail the international community and threaten their regional opponents. However, there is a chance that any military confrontations as a result of this escalation may draw the attention of the international community to the danger of the continuation of the conflict in Yemen, especially in terms of the threat it poses to international trade and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the country, thus pushing the international community to exert greater pressure in order to end the conflict.

Conclusion

The possibilities of an Israeli-Iranian escalation in Yemen seem valid. Indeed, that escalation may evolve into a military confrontation that may take different forms. However, a military clash between Iran's Houthi allies and Israel is unlikely to cause direct Israeli-Iranian military confrontations, although this might happen for accidental reasons or as a result of changing circumstances and facts. The US administration's stance will remain a deciding factor in how events will develop.

References

[1] This includes what has been published by the US magazine Newsweek about the Houthis' possession of Iranian-made “suicide” drones of the Shahid-136 type that are capable of reaching Israel. The magazine's report included pictures of this type of aircraft, which it said were located in the Yemeni region of Al-Jawf.

[2] In a speech before the Tel Aviv University Institute for National Security Studies, 26 January 2021.

[3] Israely army spokesperson Hidai Zilberman, in an interview with the Saudi news website Elaph on 26 December 2020.

 

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