Why the US confronted Iranian-backed militants in Yemen, and the risks that lie ahead


tomahawk missile raytheon explosion

MC1 Leah Stiles

A Tomahawk cruise missile fires from a vertical launcher aboard a US Navy ship.

In the early morning hours of October 12, the USS Nitze fired a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles at radar sites in Houthi-controlled Yemen, thereby marking the US's official entrance into the conflict in Yemen that has raged for 18 months.


The US fired in retaliation to previous incidents where missiles fired from Iranian-backed Houthi territory had threatened US Navy ships: The destroyers USS Mason, USS Nitze, and the amphibious transport dock the USS Ponce.

After more than two decades of peaceful service, this was likely the first time the US fired these defensive missiles in combat.

But instead of responding to the attack with the full force of two Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers, the Navy's response was measured, limited, and in self-defense.

According to Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Yemen and Iran from the Foundation for Defending Democracies, the US's response fell "far short of what an appropriate response would be."


"Basically, the US took out part of the system that would allow for targeting, protecting themselves but not going after those who fired upon them," Schanzer told Business Insider.

But even the limited strike places the US in a tricky situation internationally and legally. The Obama administration has desperately tried to preserve relations with Iran since negotiating and implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to ensure Iran doesn't become a nuclear state.

On the other hand, the pivot towards Iran, a Shia power, has ruffled feathers in Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally and the premiere Sunni power in the Middle East.

The USS Nitze, a Guided Missile Destroyer is greeted by the spray of a fireboat to kick off Fleet Week in New York Harbor, May 24, 2006. Fleet Week will run through May 30, featuring extensive naval and military display for the public. REUTERS/Peter Foley

Thomson Reuters

The USS Nitze, which destroyed the radar sites in Yemen.

By taking direct military action against the Houthi rebels, a Shia group battling the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, the US has entered into, even in a limited capacity, another war in the Middle East with no end in sight.


Iran and the Houthis

Shahab-3 missile Iran

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP

A military exhibition displays a Revolutionary Guard missile, the Shahab-3, which is claimed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching Europe, Israel and U.S. forces in the Middle East, seen under a picture of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, Iran.

Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy told Business Insider that Iran views Shia groups in the Middle East as "integral elements to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)."

The Houthi militants in Yemen "are firm believers in Iranian ideology and adherents to their supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei," said Smyth.

Smyth confirmed to Business Insider the strong bond between Iran and the Houthi uprising working to overthrow the government in Yemen.

According to Smyth, in many cases Houthi leaders go to Iran for ideological and religious education, and Iranian and Hezbollah leaders have been spotted on the ground advising the Houthi troops.

These Iranian advisors are likely responsible for training the Houthis to use the type of sophisticated guided missiles fired at the US Navy.


For Iran, supporting the revolt in Yemen is "a good way to bleed the Saudis," Iran's regional and ideological rival. Essentially, Iran is backing the Houthis to fight against a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States fighting to maintain government control of Yemen.

An armed man loyal to the Houthi movement holds his weapon as he gathers to protest against the Saudi-backed exiled government deciding to cut off the Yemeni central bank from the outside world, in the capital Sanaa, Yemen August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Thomson Reuters

An armed man loyal to the Houthi movement holds his weapon as he gathers to protest against the Saudi-backed exiled government deciding to cut off the Yemeni central bank from the outside world, in the capital Sanaa

"The Iranians are looking at this from a very very strategic angle, not just bleeding Saudis and other Gulf States, but how can they expand their ideological and military influence," said Smyth.

Yemen presents an extremely attractive goal for enterprising Iran. Yemen's situation on the Bab al-Mandab Strait means that control of that waterway - which they may have been trying to establish with the missile strikes - would give them control over the Red Sea, a massive waterway and choke point for commerce.

The risk of picking a side

Yemen map



The US officially became a combatant in Yemen on Wednesday night. In doing so, they've tacitly aligned with the Saudi-led coalition that has been tied to a brutal air blockade.

The Saudi's stand accused of war crimes for bombing schools, hospitals, markets, and even a packed funeral hall.

Internal communications show the US has been very concerned about entering into the conflict for fear that they may be considered "co-belligerents," and thereby liable for prosecution for war crimes, Reuters reports.

Lawrence Brennan, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School and a US Navy veteran, told Business Insider the "limited context in which these strikes occurred was to protect freedom of navigation and neutral ships," and therefore likely doesn't "rise to the legal state of belligerence."

Yet Russian and Shia sources are quick to lump the US and Saudi Arabia together, said Smyth. Just as the US and international community look to hold Russia and Syria accountable for the bombing of a humanitarian aid convoy in Syria, the indiscriminate Saudi air campaign in Yemen makes it "very easy to offer a response" to the cries of war crimes against them, said Smyth.


Men drive a motorcycle near a damaged aid truck after an airstrike on the rebel held Urm al-Kubra town, western Aleppo city, Syria September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Thomson Reuters

Men drive a motorcycle near a damaged aid truck after an airstrike on the rebel held Urm al-Kubra town

Indeed, now Russian propagandists can offer up a narrative that suggests a dangerous "quid pro quo" narrative, suggesting that the US and Russia are trading war crimes in the region, and to "throw out chaff" and muddy the waters should the international community looks to prosecute Russia and Syria, according to Smyth

Gone too far? Or not far enough?

So, while the US has now entered the murky waters of the conflict in Yemen, where some 14 million lack for food and thousands of civilians have been murdered, Schanzer says the US may not have done enough.

The US Navy "didn't hit the people who struck them. They're not looking for caches of missiles, not looking for youth hideouts, not looking to engage directly," said Schanzer.

For Schanzer, this half measure "seems like it's not even mowing the lawn."


Houthi RPG

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

A woman loyal to the Houthi movement hold an RPG weapon as she takes part in a parade to show support for the movement in Sanaa, Yemen September 6, 2016.

But with the US already involved in bombing campaigns in six countries, it is "loathe" to get mired in another Middle Eastern conflict, and equally concerned about fighting against Iran's proxies, who it sees as extensions of Iran's own IRGC.

For now, the Pentagon remains committed to the idea that the strike on Houthi infrastructure was a "limited" strike, and that they're strictly acting in self defense, which Schanzer says is "not really the way to achieve victory."

But with just three months left in President Barack Obama's term, there is good reason to question if the US's objective is to help the people of Yemen and end the war, or to simply sit out the festering conflict as it balances delicate regional alliances.