The conflict in Yemen is intensifying. The U.S. Navy launched cruise missiles at radar sites in areas controlled by Iran-backed Houthi forces in retaliation for attempted missile strikes on U.S. vessels, and Iran reportedly sent warships to the waters off Yemen. The moves risked bringing Iran into direct confrontation with the United States and Saudi Arabia, its ally. But while Iran will not skip an opportunity to poke its regional rival in the eye, Tehran does not want overt confrontation with the United States in Yemen.
The U.S. action came after two of its ships came under two separate missile attacks near the Bab al-Mandab straits. Both missiles failed to reach their targets. A third attack, reported over the weekend, is under investigation. The missiles were launched from Houthi-controlled territory in the north of Yemen, but it’s still unclear by whom. The Houthi rebels virulently denied carrying out the strikes. The U.S. response coincided with a report by Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency about Tehran’s deployment of its military vessels off Yemen.
The timing of the report by Tasnim, which has close links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, implied that the Iranian deployment was a response to the U.S. strikes — and that the strikes could lead to greater Iranian involvement in Yemen. But that’s not the case.
First, Iran’s Alvand and Bushehr warships were sent to patrol the Gulf of Aden (one of the world’s most important shipping routes), then on to Somalia followed by Tanzania on an anti-piracy patrol. Importantly, the ships were dispatched on October 5, eight days before the Tasnim announcement.
The announcement by Tasnim, which has close links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was typical hard-line Iranian grandstanding at a time when the United States was preparing to respond to the missile attacks. More generally, Tehran, which hasrepeatedly asked the United States to leave the region, clearly wants to avoid direct confrontation with U.S. forces. While Iranian rhetoric, particularly from hardline elements and the Revolutionary Guards, highlights Iranian strength and its ability to withstand confrontation with Washington, Iranian officials see this as a losing battle.
Tehran doesn’t want to get stuck in Yemen— especially at a time when Iran feels it’s succeeding in its efforts to showcase itself as a viable regional partner for the United States. Washington is reviewing its support for Saudi Arabia after Riyadh admitted it bombed a funeral without first following mandatory procedures to avoid civilian targets. A total of 140 people died in the October 8 attack. Depending on its findings, the review could result in less U.S involvement in this war–which is what Iran wants. Tehran would not condone missile strikes on U.S ships that risked entrenching both Iranian and U.S. involvement in Yemen.
The Houthis may have taken action without Iranian consent. After all, Iran’s patron-to-proxy relation with the Houthis is not as clear-cut as often assumed. The rebels do not report to Iran in the same manner as Lebanon’s Hezbollah does, for example. Rather, the Houthis are similar to the Palestinian Hamas movement: They receive some help and support from Iran without taking direct orders from it. In September 2014, the Houthis ignored Iran’s calls for restraint on the takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa; their success surprised Tehran.
What’s more, Yemen is not a priority for Iran. Iran is more concerned about neighboring Iraq, where it has important religious, trade and political interests, and Syria, which gives Tehran access both to Hezbollah and the Mediterranean. But Tehran’s Yemen policy is inconsistent and lacks an objective. Early on in the conflict, Iran limited itself to voicing support and providing some material supplies to the Houthi rebels. But as the Saudi intervention ramped up, Iran increasingly saw the conflict as a low-cost opportunity to be a nuisance to it rival.
But that’s all Yemen is to Iran — an opportunity. Tehran is loath to get dragged into another conflict when it is already involved on multiple regional fronts.
Washington, for its part, is keen to disengage from backing the Saudis in a conflict with no end in sight. The United States also does not want greater Iranian involvement in Yemen. That would make disengagement impossible and akin to abandoning its Saudi ally. Washington also knows that while Tehran is no match for U.S. forces, it has shown its proxies can cause serious disruption in the region.
Despite repeated calls for a ceasefire, the war in Yemen continues. But so far, Tehran and Washington have managed to limit their involvement. The attempted missile strikes cannot be allowed to escalate because that would risk dragging both countries deeper into the conflict. Neither side wants that.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.