Well, so much for the Biden presidency. Wasn’t it supposed to mark a shift from the narcissistic disorder of Donald Trump and restore a sensible political balance both domestically and internationally? Wasn’t the US supposed to be the adult in the room again, supported by its sober and capable European lieutenants in Berlin and Paris? How’s that going, Alexa?
Actually, not so well. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill is stalled in the Senate. He has failed to weaken the filibuster. His approval ratings are collapsing. And, globally, entropy rules. To understand why this has happened and why it matters, it might be helpful to start by considering the events of the past fortnight in the Gulf.
It is not always the size of the attack that matters — it is the context and the intent. The Houthis have been firing missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia for years. However, on Jan. 17, probably for the first time, they successfully attacked a number of targets in the UAE — including a petroleum storage facility and Abu Dhabi airport — with a mix of so-called suicide drones and missiles, all probably Iranian-built and therefore cheap as chips. A week later, they launched a further salvo at the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This time, the air defenses seemed to work.
The immediate context for these attacks is the UAE’s involvement in the struggle against the Houthis. The Emiratis have been pretty effective on the ground. From the beginning, they operationalized a good human intelligence network. They have conducted sophisticated combined operations and shown impressive tactical adaptability. Most recently, it was a UAE-backed Yemeni force, the so-called Giants Brigade, which was summoned to take the fight to the Houthis in Shabwa, a key battleground in the protracted fight to dominate terrain and control the country’s energy resources.
And it is this that seems to represent the immediate cause for the Houthi attack, which followed their seizure of a UAE-flagged ship in the Red Sea at the beginning of January — an act of piracy with which we have become all too familiar. After all, the Houthis probably believe that it was their obduracy that forced the UAE to withdraw most of its forces from Yemen in 2019. So why shouldn’t a strike showcasing their ability to attack the UAE’s heartland now persuade them to stop backing their domestic enemies remotely? This has certainly been the tenor of Houthi statements, backed by the usual bellicose noises from Tehran and some of the Shiite militias of Iraq.
It has not worked so far. The Saudis retaliated to the first missile attacks with airstrikes, which they say killed a senior Houthi general. The Emiratis attacked and destroyed Houthi launch sites and doubled down on their support for the Giants Brigade.
War is undoubtedly hell. Sometimes, when serious interests are at stake, it is hard to see any obvious alternative. But the aim must always be to achieve a decisive victory with the minimum casualties and in the shortest time possible. In the case of Yemen, this has not happened. And the strategic balance remains strikingly skewed. All the years of aerial bombardment — plus constant UN activism and steady international condemnation — have signally failed to bring the Houthis to the negotiating table. They, in return, can inflict damage at relatively little cost. Withdrawal is unthinkable. But victory remains elusive.
So we are collectively faced with an increasingly serious dilemma. This is not simply about Yemen or indeed Saudi Arabia, the Gulf or the Middle East as a whole. It is global. The Houthis’ attacks on the UAE are part of a pattern, whose common factor is Iran.
The first combined use of drones and cruise missiles to strike a regional target was probably in 2018, when Iran hit a Kurdish Iranian opposition party’s offices in Koya, inside Kurdistan Regional Government territory in Iraq. Iran had shelled targets inside the KRG before, whenever they thought the Kurds were doing things they didn’t like. But this was something different: It flagged up a new capability to combine drones and missiles — a keystone of Iranian defense doctrine — with unprecedented accuracy.
The same message was evident when Iran and/or its proxies hit Shaybah in 2019 and Abqaiq and Khurais in 2020. In neither case did Iran claim direct responsibility. Indeed, the Houthis implausibly claimed it was them.
The Houthis’ attacks on the UAE are part of a pattern, whose common factor is Iran.
Sir John Jenkins
Israel, too, has recently been plagued with Iranian-built drones, this time sent by Hezbollah in Lebanon to reconnoiter targets, mainly along the shared border but perhaps aiming as far south as Dimona, Israel’s own nuclear site, which Tehran has specifically threatened to destroy in any future war. Hezbollah was badly hit in the 2006 conflict with Israel but has been more than reequipped since then by Iran, which has used its strategic control of territory in Iraq and Syria to send not just missiles and drones, but also new and more advanced guidance systems. Hamas has also benefited.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, regularly threatens that any new conflict would be qualitatively different from previous ones, with Israel’s home front becoming a theater of destruction. Iranian military officials do the same. So do the Houthis. So indeed do Iraqi militia leaders, who also possess Iranian missiles and drones and who threatened the UAE a week before the Houthi strike. The apparent range of the attack on Koya suggested that a similar strike from the Iraq-Syria border could reach Tel Aviv.
The Houthi attack on Abu Dhabi was — at a range of 1,500 km — not enough to reach Tel Aviv, but was much further than anything they had attempted before and nearly enough to reach Eilat. It was certainly enough to reach any target in the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia and most of the other Gulf states, including those involved in the Abraham Accords.
Demonstrating a rapidly developing and semi-deniable ability to hit targets at will in the territories of the West’s friends in the region — and get away with it — sends a message that Iran and its pals think they are winning. And the more it happens, the more confident Tehran becomes. It used the financial windfall the 2015 nuclear deal brought in its train not to relieve domestic economic pressures, as some had claimed would happen, but to invest in more military capability. And in the last five years, the Iranians have drawn closer to Russia, with which it works closely in Syria, and China. Tehran signed a long-term strategic agreement with Beijing last year and President Ebrahim Raisi has just been in Moscow to advance a similar pact with Russia. And the three countries conducted joint naval exercises this month.
That makes a mockery of the Khomeinist slogan: “Neither east nor west.” But it also reflects the irredeemable hostility toward the West that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made the basis of his regime and which only fools think will be lessened if we make nice.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have made clear their deep unhappiness with Washington’s coolness toward them, which predates Biden but has been exacerbated by his administration’s wider behavior on Middle Eastern issues and on Afghanistan. Although they remain deeply suspicious of Tehran’s intentions, they have understandably sought to reinsure with overtures to Iran because they think the US no longer has their back.
In itself, that is highly unlikely to lead to a stable new security order in the Gulf. Why, after all, would Iran offer serious concessions if it feels no pressure? There is no prospect of the Chinese or Russians stepping in to replace the US. Indeed, a degree of localized disorder may be in their interests.
And just as Vladimir Putin noticed and acted upon Barack Obama’s reluctance to use military force in Syria, so he, Xi Jinping, Khamenei and any number of the West’s enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere will have noticed the confusion of the Biden administration, the hypocritical mercantilism of Germany, Macron’s Napoleonic bluster and the impotence of the EU when faced with real and imminent danger in Ukraine and elsewhere. As we have repeatedly seen, such as with Turkey’s (and indeed Israel’s) testing of drone swarms in the recent Azeri-Armenian conflict, military action is becoming both cheaper and easier to disguise. That makes it harder to respond. But every failure to do so is just another small nail in the coffin of the post-1945 global order. Acting as if that order is divisible helps our enemies and dismays our friends. That is why little things matter.
This brings us to the negotiations in Vienna. The Iranians probably think they are on to a winner here too. They have been able to develop their technical capacity and enrich uranium well beyond the nuclear deal’s limits in the last three years, making it difficult for the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor their activities, while the Biden administration and its European allies dither. Every week, some representative of the parties claims variously that time is running out, that serious difficulties remain or that an agreement is possible if only everyone shows good faith. This doubtless reflects attempts to control the narrative and gloss over the real tensions that must exist.
Only this week, the State Department’s deputy to Robert Malley, the US special representative to Iran, resigned, reportedly over a fundamental disagreement on negotiating tactics. Malley himself suggested to Reuters that an agreement depended on the release of Americans held hostage by Iran. This has now been walked back. There is a suggestion that the US will renew its designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, which was unwisely lifted a year ago. Who knows? Fog reigns.
The Iranians, Russians and Chinese probably think the US is a busted flush anyway. After all, the Obama administration failed to effectively challenge the Russian seizure of Crimea in early 2014 and then backed down over Syria. Individual states — notably including the UK and excluding Germany — are providing significant material support on Ukraine. But the most the US and EU seem able to muster as a collective is a blizzard of meaningless (and, in the case of Biden, confusing) statements, the occasional Zoom consultation — and perhaps the threat of permanently stationing Bernard-Henri Levy at the battlefront.
At some point, as Iran continues to enrich uranium and rebuild its centrifuges, a revived nuclear deal will simply become unviable, if it hasn’t already. We should already be preparing for a different course: The determined erosion of Iranian capacity to cause mischief and the pushing back of its influence by proportionate responses to adventurism, the development of effective defenses against its aggression, sustained support for its opponents, occasional military force, and robust economic constraints. As the old adage has it: If you want peace, prepare for war. If we don’t, then war will come anyway. Then we really are looking at a new world disorder. And it won’t be pretty.
• Sir John Jenkins