Playing With Fire

The Houthi militia acts as Iran’s tool in attacking ships off the coast of Yemen


The act of piracy by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia on the United Arab Emirates-flagged vessel Rawabi off the coast of Yemen’s Hodeidah governorate has sounded alarm bells once more.

The attacks reminded the world of the danger the militia poses to the safety of vessels and commercial traffic within the Red Sea’s international shipping lanes and the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait, through which 6 million barrels of oil pass daily.

Barely hours after the incident on January 2, 2022, the Saudi-led Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen announced it had received a distress call from an oil tanker subjected to armed harassment near the Port of Hodeidah. These are indications of increased risk in the area and in the shipping lane off the port, which is controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.

These incidents, which were an escalation of hostilities in the Red Sea, bring to mind the increased targeting, interception and hijacking of commercial vessels and oil tankers in international shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea over the past two years. All these incidents bore the fingerprints of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its sectarian militias in the region.

Yemen’s coastline of 2,500 kilometers overlooks the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. The Houthi militia controls approximately 300 kilometers of the coastline in Hodeidah. In addition, it uses the governorate’s three ports as workshops to manufacture and assemble ballistic missiles and booby-trapped boats. It also has centers to prepare and implement hostile activities in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb in flagrant violation and manipulation of the Stockholm Agreement.

The Houthi militia has developed capabilities to conduct aggression against ports, oil facilities, commercial vessels and oil tankers, including the use of smart missiles, naval mines, remote-controlled booby-trapped boats and drones with the support, supervision and planning of experts from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its accomplices.

The Iranian vessel Saviz, which was docked off the Yemeni coast from 2016 to April 2021, was used as a floating espionage base to store weapons, run Houthi smuggling operations, collect information on international shipping movements, and plan hostile operations. It was replaced halfway through 2021 year by the vessel Bahshad, which has continued the same bad behavior.

Statistics show that the Houthi militia has conducted 21 maritime terrorist operations affecting 23 vessels from nine countries — Greece, the Marshall Islands, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. The militia used guided missiles to target vessels in seven hostile operations and booby-trapped boats in 11 operations, and used a drone in one operation and naval mines in another.

One of the most notable of these attacks was in October 2016, when the Houthi damaged the Swift 2 vessel with a rocket. In the same month, three U.S warships were hit by rockets off the Yemeni Red Sea coast, and in 2017 three Houthi boats attacked a Saudi vessel in the same place. In 2018, the Houthis attacked a large Saudi-flagged oil tanker with rockets, and in 2019 Houthis hijacked a tugboat in the southern Red Sea. In 2020, the militia planted a naval mine that hit a commercial freighter.

Since the 2015 coup, the Houthi militia has hijacked four commercial ships to ports under Houthi control and has conducted seven operations targeting Saudi and Yemeni ports. The Houthis have planted hundreds of naval mines in Red Sea territorial waters and along the western coastline, close to the international shipping lanes, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden; 247 have been destroyed. In addition, the Houthis  planned attacks using 99 remote-controlled boats, which the Arab Coalition intercepted and destroyed in 2021.

The Houthi militia’s violence forms part of an Iranian strategy that aims to demonstrate its control over the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb and its ability to close it at any time, shutting down the movement of trade and energy supplies, squeezing the global economy, and using it to pressure and blackmail the international community.

Hours after the Rawabi was hijacked, Adm. Alireza Tangsiri, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy, threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to international shipping. It is just one example of Iranian messages directed against the world.

On the other hand, the Saudi-led Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen has been working continuously since the coup on behalf of the world to protect shipping lanes and global traffic in Bab el-Mandab and the Red Sea, and to thwart hostile activities carried out by the Houthi militia at the behest, planning and arming of Iran.

The international community’s continued disregard toward the Iranian regime’s policies, and its sectarian militias destabilizing security and stability and spreading chaos and violence in the region have encouraged the Houthi militia to persevere with their hostile activities. These pose a new threat to Yemeni, regional and international maritime security, global trade movement, energy security, fishing and pollution of the marine environment for countries bordering the Red Sea.

Another looming threat is the Safer oil tanker anchored off the coast of Ras Issa Port in Hodeidah. We cannot ignore the risk of the pending environmental, economic and humanitarian disaster due to the leakage, sinking or explosion of Safer. The tank has not been maintained for seven years and contains more than 1 million barrels of crude oil. The Houthi militia uses it as a ticking time bomb to pressure and blackmail, rejecting any effort or call to assess the tanker’s state of repair and maintain it.

In the face of all this, the international community, the United Nations and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are called upon to realize the danger of the Iranian regime’s misdeeds and its Houthi proxy. They must shoulder the responsibility in firmly dealing with hostile activities and securing global trade in some of the most important international shipping lanes. The duties of the United Nations Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement must change from observation to total supervision of Hodeidah’s ports (in line with the Stockholm Agreement) and support the legitimate government’s efforts to reestablish control over the whole Yemeni coastline and perform its role in combating the malign activity that threatens regional and international peace and security.

Comments are closed.