The stakes in the Middle East have rarely been higher.
Simmering tensions reached new levels on Friday when the US and UK launched strikes on Houthi fighters in Yemen, in an effort to force them to halt their months-long attacks in the Red Sea. A day later, the US unilaterally carried out fresh strikes, targeting a Houthi radar facility.
The strikes risk further fanning the flames of a wider regionaI conflict that neither the US nor the Houthis’ backers in Iran appear to want.
Since Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel and the Israeli offensive in Gaza that followed, Iran’s so-called axis of resistance — a network of Shia militias that span four Middle Eastern countries — has been activated from one end of the region to the other.
Hezbollah entered daily confrontations with Israeli forces on the Lebanon-Israel border. Houthi rebels launched a series of attacks on commercial ships and Western military vessels in the Red Sea, a major artery for international trade. Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria launched dozens of attacks aimed at US military positions in those countries, leading to a number of close calls.
It has been a relatively low-rumbling tit-for-tat that has stayed just below the threshold of a full-blown regional war. And it has sharpened US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy dilemmas while Iran seeks to balance tactical military gains against the dangers of a larger conflict.
Iran’s network of armed groups have coalesced around a single stated goal: bringing about a ceasefire in Gaza, where the staggering civilian death toll and wide-scale devastation wrought by Israel’s assault has led to allegations of genocide at the United Nations’ top court (claims Israel has strenuously denied).
It has been a risky venture for which each of the armed groups have paid a hefty price. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has lost nearly 200 fighters since October 8. In Iraq, US strikes have dealt major blows to the infrastructure of Iranian-backed fighters. In Yemen, the damage wrought by the deadly strikes on Thursday is not yet clear, but the US and the UK say they have targeted positions used by the Houthis to launch attacks on the Red Sea, potentially weakening the group’s stranglehold over the shipping route.
“These strikes are in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea – including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history,” Biden said in a statement. “These attacks have endangered US personnel, civilian mariners, and our partners, jeopardized trade, and threatened freedom of navigation.”
But the escalation in violence has also brought gains to Iran’s proxies, as well as their backers in Tehran. The popularity of these groups has soared in the region. They have largely redeemed themselves in a galvanized Arab and Muslim street, after having been mired in internal politics and plagued by allegations of corruption for years.
“It is clear that the Houthis were grabbing the opportunity of the current war to go through a quite effective rebranding exercise,” said Rym Momtaz, Consultant Research Fellow for European Foreign Policy and Security, transforming them “from a malign Iran-backed terror group destroying Yemen into an effective military outfit inflicting pain on the US in support of the Palestinians.”
There are other tactical gains beyond their boosted popularity. In Yemen, a muscular rebel group has more to gain from its ongoing peace talks with Saudi Arabia, which maintains a blockade over Houthi-controlled northern Yemen, and has been visibly nervous about the US and UK attacks jeopardizing its efforts to turn the page on its conflict with Sanaa.
In Lebanon, the border flareup seems to have turned the country’s devastating economic crisis, and the role Hezbollah has played in fuelling it, into a distant memory. With Israel on the backfoot in its border area with Lebanon, from which the vast majority of its residents have fled, Hezbollah has been empowered to push for a negotiated settlement where it aims to retrieve slivers of Israeli-controlled territories claimed by Lebanon.
In Iraq, the revived attacks on US troops – and the US’ retaliatory strikes on Iranian-backed groups – have prompted the government to renew a push to end America’s military presence in the country, a move that would delight the leaders of the Iranian regime.
But stoking tensions only benefits Iran up to a certain point. If these relatively low-level confrontations eventually escalate into all-out war with the US, Tehran’s paramilitary partners could face decimation. That would compromise Iran’s growing influence in the region, deal a blow to the lynchpin of its foreign policy, and stir up trouble at home, where the regime is still reeling from protests that engulfed the country one year ago.
“The Iranians are trying to stay out of a war. Their population absolutely does not want a war,” said Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the DC-based Quincy Institute. “I think they would find themselves in a very similar situation to (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu, which is that if there is a war, there will be a rallying around their country and not their leadership.”
Parsi warns against downplaying the importance of a ceasefire in Gaza bringing about a de-escalation in the region. The Biden administration, according to Parsi, is “trying to walk a fine balance in which they maximize the maneuverability of Israel without it leading to a regional war.”
“As long as the war in Gaza goes on, that war is what is fuelling the Houthi attacks, the militia attacks, as well as the tensions between Lebanon and Israel,” said Parsi, adding that the Houthis temporarily stopped their attacks on the Red Sea during a six-day truce between Hamas and Israel in November.
Meanwhile, the escalation is likely to persist, even as both the US and Iran-backed actors seek to calibrate their confrontations and pray that it doesn’t spiral. The clashes will also continue to give Tehran leverage, argues IISS’s Momtaz, as evidenced by the strikes in Yemen on Thursday.
“That is a strategic challenge that the US is dealing with now,” said Momtaz. “They need to restore freedom of navigation and secure international trade in the Red Sea while continuing to make sure that the other fronts don’t escalate into a real war.”