Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.
As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.
Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.
As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?
Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”
Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.
Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.
And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.
So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?
Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.
The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.
Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.
War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.
Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”
“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”
And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.
Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.
A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”
Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.
However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.
So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.
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