The destroyer USS Gravely launches Tomahawk missiles in the Red Sea on Jan. 12, 2024, in response to the repeated attacks on commercial shipping by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen.

The destroyer USS Gravely launches Tomahawk missiles in the Red Sea on Jan. 12, 2024, in response to the repeated attacks on commercial shipping by Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen. (Jonathan Word/U.S. Navy)

“All American and British interests have become legitimate targets for the Yemeni armed forces.”

That is the defiant and threatening declaration by the Supreme Political Council of the Houthis following airstrikes on Yemen targets by the United States and Britain, supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands.

These air missions were in retaliation for Houthi forces actively attacking international shipping in the Red Sea area. Iran directly supports this radical group and others in the region. The Houthi movement has proven remarkably resilient in the long years of armed civil conflict in Yemen.

The Houthi sect controls significant territory, concentrated in the west of Yemen, which has declined as a nation-state.

Piracy is an ancient problem, given contemporary currency by Houthi actions. Over two centuries ago, President Thomas Jefferson and members of his administration in the newly independent United States faced armed challenges by pirate regimes on the Barbary Coast.

American preference was to pursue relative isolation. International realities dictated otherwise.

Context is particularly important in addressing matters in the Middle East. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and the sky over Pennsylvania underscored that terrorism is indeed a global threat.

Al-Qaida, which carried out these attacks, at the time was sheltering in Afghanistan. In consequence, an international military force led by the U.S. invaded that country, overthrew the Taliban ruling regime, and undertook a massive two-decade effort to modernize Afghanistan. Despite this, the Taliban is now back in charge.

Related, the administration of George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, overthrew the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and ushered in economic, political and social chaos and disorder that continues. Islamic State, generally referred to as ISIS, emerged from this extremely reckless use of our armed forces. While largely defeated and destroyed, remnants add to regional instability.

ISIS is so brutal that even al-Qaida rejected them, with exceptions. Extremist Islamic factions are divided, which should be kept in mind in planning U.S. policies. What are other important considerations?

Iran must be central in our thinking. Destroying Saddam’s regime has greatly strengthened Tehran’s hand in the region. Former President Richard Nixon predicted precisely this outcome to invading Iraq, a decade before 2003. He was evaluating the well-executed First Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait only.

Observations of Dennis Ross are especially important. This effective and skillful public servant has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. He is committed to Israel’s security, a fundamental U.S. policy, and strategically insightful and evenhanded.

Ross notes Iran generally is realistic in actual behavior, as opposed to rhetoric. Leaders evaluate odds of success, and act accordingly. Hence, international sanctions may eventually bring about more reasonable policy.

Iran has shown restraint in using armed force. During the long, costly war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran suffered attacks from weapons of mass destruction without responding in kind. The Reagan administration provided Kuwaiti oil tankers with U.S. flags and warship escorts, and retaliated strongly to Iran-based military harassment.

In July 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was mistakenly identified as a military aircraft and destroyed by a surface-to-air missile from the USS Vincennes. A total of 290 civilians were killed. Eight years later, Tehran accepted a financial settlement from the U.S. government of $131.8 million.

As the latest airstrikes on Houthi targets indicate, we have a major opportunity to work with various allies in addressing and suppressing this problem. At the same time, care must be taken to avoid inadvertent armed conflict with other nations active in the region, especially Russia.

Ross today emphasizes the importance of public focus on the hostages still being held by Hamas. A potential source of crucial leverage is Qatar; the capital Doha has a Hamas delegation.

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War.”

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