In the early morning of December 31, 2023, the commercial freighter Maersk Hangzhou came under attack by Houthi fighters from Yemen who were attempting to board it. U.S. Navy helicopters responding to its distress calls were fired upon by the small Houthi boats, according to the U.S. Central Command, and “returned fire in self-defence,” sinking three of the four boats and killing their crews.
The CENTCOM report identifies the attackers as “Iranian-backed Houthi” boats. In its report the same day, The New York Times repeats that unsubstantiated link, labelling the attackers of the freighter “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters.”
That report joins a flurry of claims that provocatively link Iran to events in the Middle East in a manner that risks widening the war in Gaza. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opens his December 28 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal with the catalogue that Hamas “backed by Iran” massacred Israelis on October 7, Hezbollah “also backed by Iran” has launched rockets into Northern Israel, “Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen” are attacking ships, and Syrian and Iraqi militias “with support from Iran” are attacking US bases. “Notice a pattern?” Bennett asks. “The Iranian regime is at the center of most of the Middle East’s problems and much of global terror.”
But the claim that Iran is the puppet master pulling the Houthi strings is not one that can be uncritically made without substantiation. The Houthi have never been as under the control of Iran as the Western media has presented.
From the earliest days of the Houthi, the United States knew that then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s convenient claims of a Houthi-Iran link were weak. In his book Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill reports that in a classified cable, “US officials . . . raised serious questions about the extent of Iranian involvement.” Though Iran does have influence with the Houthi, the Houthi do not simply operate at the will of Iran. Analysts have pointed out that Iran “bandwagons” on Houthi success as often as it causes it.
Though the Iran-backed Houthi claim goes back a long way to previous wars, a 2015 NSC assessment said that “Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen.” U.S. intelligence agreed: “It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Huffington Post.
Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and an expert on the Middle East, told me after the attack on the Maersk Hangzhou that “If Iran didn’t like what they’re doing, they could probably stop it.” But, he added, it is also probable that the Houthi “initiated the attacks themselves.”
And it is even possible that Iran lacks the influence to stop the Houthis from carrying out actions of their choice. In 2014, as the Houthis advanced on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, Iran specifically urged them not to capture the city. The Houthi resisted the influence and captured the capital, effectively demonstrating Iran’s lack of control.
Iranian influence over the Houthi does not mean that the Houthi are always acting under the influence of Iran. The Houthi are an aspiring state leader that, like other states, act out of self interest. Zunes told me that the Houthi are likely “trying to gain legitimacy by supporting the Palestinian cause.” Following the sinking of their boats the Houthi explained that they were “performing their religious, moral and humanitarian duty in support and aid of those who have been wronged in Palestine and Gaza.” They promise to continue their operations in the Red Sea “until adequate supplies of food and medicine are allowed into Gaza.” The Houthi say they are targeting Israeli ships or ships that are delivering cargo to or from Israel. The United States says Iran is coordinating the attacks; Iran says they are not and that the Houthi are acting on their own.
Yemen understands better than anyone what it is like to be bombed and blockaded by an American supported country. The Houthi control the majority of Yemen and govern territory that is home to 70-80% of the population. They are currently negotiating a settlement with Saudi Arabia that would end their war and leave the Houthi as the government of Yemen. Their support for Gaza and their show of defiant independence from the United States enhances the Houthi status in the region, which could be a large part of their reasoning as they prepare to come to power.
And it is not just in the Red Sea that Iran is being provocatively linked to actions that risk widening the war in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the link when he said on December 30 that “If Hezbollah expands the war, it will receive blows it never dreamed of – and so will Iran.” He added that “Iran leads the axis of evil and aggression against us on the various fronts.”
But, as with the Houthi, the charge that Hezbollah simply operates under the will of Iran cannot be made uncritically. Like the Houthi, Hezbollah is supported and influenced by Iran. But that is not the same as being controlled by Iran or as lacking a will of their own. Hezbollah has seemingly, like the Houthi and most other states, acted in its own interest and the interest of Lebanon, controlling its level of engagement with Israel and resisting engaging in another all out Hezbollah-Israel war that Lebanon can ill afford at this time.
Iran supports Hezbollah politically, financially, and militarily. But, as a former head of Hezbollah in parliament once told the reporter Reese Erlich, “despite these close ties, Hizbollah makes its own decisions.” Seymour Hersh reported as early as 2007 that the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence communities recognize Hezbollah’s ties to Iran but disagree about the extent to which it would “put aside Hezbollah’s interests in favor of Iran’s.” A former CIA officer who worked in Lebanon described Hezbollah leader Nasrallah as “a Lebanese phenomenon” who is “aided by Iran . . . but Hezbollah’s gone beyond that.”
And when Iran does influence Lebanon’s actions, it is not always nefarious. Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani used Iran’s influence to help free American hostages.
In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Bennett also lists Syrian and Iraqi militias operating “with support from Iran.” Trita Parsi has suggested that the recent assassination of Iran’s top commander in Syria, Seyed Razi Mousavi, may also have been carried out as preparation for, or provocation of, widening the war in Gaza to Iran.
While Iran may be pleased by Houthi and Hezbollah action, that does not imply that they are directing it. The repeated uncritical implication being made without analysis or substantiation by Western media and officials is a dangerous provocation that targets Iran and risks widening the war in Gaza into much wider war.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.