Yemen’s Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, controls the capital city of Sana and much of the northern part of the country, having militarily ousted the recognized government of Yemen. The efforts led by Saudi Arabia to restore the former government are part of what has been a costly, stalemated war in Yemen, with the people of that impoverished country paying a terrible price.
While one can debate whether the Houthis are a proxy of Iran, what is not debatable is that they get their missiles, drones, training, help in production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other weapons from Iran’s Quds Forces and Hezbollah. The Iranians find them a useful instrument to exert real pressure on Saudi Arabia, particularly as they strike Saudi civilian targets, including in the capital city of Riyadh and oil facilities throughout the country. That the Houthis have their own reasons for striking Saudi Arabia, especially given the Saudi bombing of targets in Yemen, does not change the fact that Iran does all it can to stoke this conflict, not reduce it.
We were reminded again of that this past week when the Houthis chose to attack the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yayha Sarie, declared that the Houthis, retaliating for Emirati involvement in the war in Yemen, had targeted the Dubai international airport as well as the airport in Abu Dhabi. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, confirmed that the Houthis had fired ballistic and cruise missiles as well as drones in the attacks, and that many were intercepted and destroyed. But not all — as Musaffah, an industrial district in Abu Dhabi, and a construction site at the Abu Dhabi airport were struck, igniting several fuel tankers, killing three civilians and wounding six others. Had the very busy Dubai airport been hit, many civilians, including many Americans, could have been killed. Without the Iranians, such an attack could not have been possible.
That should tell us that, regardless of the outcome of the talks in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian behavior in the region must be countered if it cannot be deterred. Iranian leaders, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on down, have been insistent that they will not negotiate their missile program or their activities in the region, essentially saying the nuclear talks are one thing and the region and missiles are something entirely different. Given the Iranian posture, the Biden administration should make clear that what is fine for you is also fine for us — meaning, if we reach an agreement on the nuclear program in Vienna, that is not going to affect what we do to raise the costs to Iran in the region.
That was not the case in 2015, when the Obama administration and the other members of the 5+1 reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, with Iran. Then, there was a fear that if we sought to impose a price on the Iranians for their destabilizing actions in the region, they would not implement the nuclear deal. The Iranian desire to get sanctions relief always meant they would implement the JCPOA. But we did very little in response as they ratcheted up their aggressive acts throughout the region. Now, we need to learn the lessons of the past and make the Iranians and their clients or proxies pay a price. And, it needs to start with the Houthis.
At the outset of the Biden administration, there was an understandable effort to try to promote a diplomatic outcome to the war. Apart from appointing a well-respected envoy, Timothy Lenderking, the administration took two steps designed to signal the Houthis it was a new day: It took the Houthis off the foreign terrorist organization list (FTO), and it announced it would no longer provide support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. If it was meant to create an environment for successful diplomacy, the Houthis simply pocketed these moves and escalated their attacks into the Saudi kingdom.
Many NGOs dealing with the catastrophic conditions of hunger and disease in Yemen had opposed the Trump administration’s decision to designate the Houthis as an FTO, fearing this would make it even harder to get humanitarian assistance into Yemen. Leaving aside the reality that the Houthis made delivery of humanitarian assistance difficult — often attacking warehouses, siphoning off supplies or simply diverting them — the Houthis are a terrorist organization. Their attacks against two international airports is a vivid reminder of that. It is hard to believe that it is not possible to separate the issues of the Houthis as a terrorist organization and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Regardless, the Houthis need to see that they will pay a price for this attack and are isolated, and that we will act to bolster the defenses of those they attack.
With that in mind, the Biden administration should start by bringing a resolution to the UN Security Council, condemning the Houthis for the attacks and making clear that punitive actions will be considered if there are any further strikes. Neither the Chinese nor the Russians will block such a resolution, given their ties to the Emiratis. Second, we should immediately provide early warning intelligence for the Emiratis on all missile firings — something we have and can provide. Third, we should quickly provide additional means to upgrade air and missile defenses in the Emirates; Emirati officials tell me they have been seeking such material support for some time from the administration, which has been slow to respond; it is time to do so. Fourth, the administration should provide precision guidance munitions to make potential Emirati retaliation more effective and less likely to cause civilian casualties — all the more important because the Houthis launch their missiles from civilian areas, something the administration knows and should publicize. Fifth, both bilaterally and through Central Command, we should engage in exercises with the Emiratis and others simulating responses to such missile firings, including retaliatory strikes intended to destroy missiles on the ground before they can be launched.
Rarely has it been more important for an American administration to show it will stand by a friend in response to an attack that could have resulted in many civilian casualties, including Americans. It is not just our friends who need to see this but those who seem so determined to challenge the United States and our desire to shape an international order. From Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping to Ali Khamenei, it is essential to counteract their perception of our risk-aversion and demonstrate that their actions are making us more risk-ready. Deterrence demands nothing less.
Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.