Why Iran Sent the Houthis to War Against Israel

December 20, 2023 Topic: Houthis Region: Middle East Tags: HouthisYemenIranAxis Of ResistanceIsraelHamas

Why Iran Sent the Houthis to War Against Israel

The Houthis, unlike Iran’s other proxies, might be considered more expendable in the broader spectrum of Iran’s strategic considerations.


Following the downing of numerous Houthi drones over the Red Sea by the U.S. and allied navies, the U.S. Department of Defense’s announcement of Operation Prosperity Guardian, the forthcoming international initiative aimed at safeguarding maritime commerce in the Red Sea, has heightened interest in how Yemeni militias are supporting Hamas.

Since the onset of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Iran-supported Yemeni Houthis have taken an extraordinary step in siding with Hamas militants. They have engaged in missile strikes, maritime hijackings, and drone launches. Despite the majority of these efforts failing and none of the attacks reaching Israeli soil, it raises a pertinent question: why, among all of Iran’s Shia allies, are the Houthis seemingly acting with such aggression? This question might draw attention, especially since a significant number of Houthi attacks have been unsuccessful. This reality leads us to the first of many assumptions about why Iran is playing the Houthi card.


The fact that the Houthis, for now, do not possess the capability to attack Israel successfully does not necessarily make them a less desirable card for Iran to play. This stance is supported by recent media reports which suggest that during a meeting in early November with the Hamas chief, Ismail Haniyeh, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, explicitly stated that Iran does not intend to be involved in the attacks. According to reports, Khamenei has stated that since Hamas initiated the operation independently of Iran, they must proceed autonomously.

Despite the reliability of these reports, it is reasonable to argue that given the vast power disparity between Iran and the United States and Israel and the Iranian government’s survivalist nature, it would be reasonable for the Islamic Republic not to wage war with Israel over Gaza. In fact, Iran’s reluctance to unleash Hezbollah in Lebanon or other proxies in Syria against Israel is also understandable, as those attacks could quickly spiral out of control, leading to escalation, which could result in direct Israeli-Iranian confrontation.

In the meantime, Given Iran’s self-proclaimed role as the guardian of the Muslim community and “oppressed people,” inaction is not a viable option. After all, Iran leads a chain of proxies across the region known as the “Axis of Resistance.” In this scenario, Iran is compelled to act in a way that minimizes potential repercussions. The least risky option would be to engage in largely symbolic or ineffective actions. This reasoning may explain why Iran has allowed the Houthis, arguably its partner least capable of harming Israel, to launch missiles and saber-rattle, thereby reducing the risk of escalation without losing face.

Indeed, history demonstrates that national decisions, including those made by the Islamic Republic of Iran, are influenced by an array of factors. Thus, Iran’s choice to utilize the Houthi faction in Yemen could be attributed to various strategic considerations.

One key factor is that Yemen falls outside Israel’s traditional sphere of intelligence operations. Historically, one of Israel’s strengths has been its robust intelligence capabilities, which have played a crucial role in its military successes. This can be observed in historical events such as the Six Day War of 1967, Operation Opera against Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981, Operation Outside the Box targeting the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, and various operations disrupting Iranian nuclear and ballistic endeavors.

While Israel’s intelligence network has excelled in penetrating its primary adversaries, this focus may have led to a relative neglect of less immediately threatening entities. The surprise attacks of October 7 serve as a testament to this oversight. Consequently, Yemen, in contrast to the Axis of Resistance’s core, running from Beirut to Tehran, is a relative blind spot for Israeli intelligence. This lack of “eyes and ears” on the ground could provide Iran with a sense of security in utilizing the Houthis as a strategic proxy without the immediate risk of Israeli preemption or retaliation.

The geographical distance between Yemen and Israel, along with Yemen’s rugged, mountainous terrain, indeed constitutes another significant factor in Iran’s strategic calculus for using the Houthi faction.

The distance of approximately 2,211 km (1,373 miles) poses logistical challenges for Israel’s military operations.

Israel’s primary combat aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II, has an operational range of 900 to 1,200 nautical miles, and the F-16, another critical aircraft in its fleet, has a range of about 500 miles without refueling. Considering Israel’s limited aerial refueling capacity, these ranges make sustained operations over such distances more challenging.

Additionally, while Israel’s F-15 Eagles can operate within an extended range of approximately 3,000 miles, it is noteworthy that F-15 fighters are primarily designed for air-to-air fights, which may not align seamlessly with the requirements of long-distance strike missions against the Houthis.

Although Israel possesses Jericho II/III (YA-3/4) long-range ballistic missiles, which are theoretically capable of reaching Yemen, the decision to deploy such strategic assets involves careful considerations. The Houthi militia’s decentralized, quasi-tribal structure and dispersed presence in mountainous regions present a challenge for precise targeting. Utilizing a ballistic missile against such a fluid and elusive target raises questions about the operational effectiveness and strategic value of such an action for Israel. In this context, the cost-benefit analysis of deploying significant military resources against a relatively indistinct and dispersed enemy like the Houthis in Yemen’s challenging terrain becomes a critical aspect of Israel’s strategic decisionmaking.

Another factor to consider is Yemen’s geostrategic position, bordering the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which 40 percent of international trade passes. This position could give the Houthis and their main backer, Iran, a sense (even if potentially false) of security, believing that the international community cannot afford a prolonged war in that region. They might assume that if a conflict breaks out there, the pressure from international actors would be so significant that any U.S.-led operation would be doomed to be short-lived.

Lastly, it’s crucial to recognize that Iran’s proxy networks are not just tools for regional influence but also key components of its deterrence strategy. By arming these groups, Iran signals to its adversaries the potential chaos that could engulf the region if these proxies are mobilized. In this context, entities like Hezbollah and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria are deemed too vital to risk in conflicts over Hamas. The Houthis, however, hold a different status. Iran has managed to advance its regional objectives for about forty years with minimal reliance on the Houthis, indicating that it could continue to do so. This suggests that, unlike Iran’s other proxies, the Houthis might be considered more expendable in the broader spectrum of Iran’s strategic considerations.

Arman Mahmoudian is a lecturer in international affairs and a research assistant at the USF Global and National Security Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @MahmoudianArman.

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