Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen have carried out their first attack in the Red Sea in six days, firing at an Iran-bound grain cargo ship, the US military has said, in a strike that raises questions about the group’s targeting.
The lull in attacks on ships which the Houthis claim are linked to Israel has led to claims that US and UK strikes against the group have successfully neutralised its capabilities or that potential targets have been deterred from entering the Red Sea.
The Houthis say they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, but that has been contested by the UK defence secretary, Grant Shapps, who has accused the Houthis of being “opportunist pirates”.
The US central command (Centcom) said in a statement: “On February 12 from 3.30 to 3.45am Yemen time, Iranian-backed Houthi militants fired two missiles from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward the Bab al-Mandeb.
“Both missiles were launched toward MV Star Iris, a Greek-owned, Marshall Islands-flagged cargo vessel transiting the Red Sea carrying corn from Brazil. The ship reports being seaworthy with minor damage and no injuries to the crew”. It added it was of note the MV Star Iris’s destination was Bandar Iman Khomeini in Iran.
The Houthis sought to describe the Star Iris as an “American” vessel, without offering evidence.
Iran provides financial and practical backing to the Houthis and the US navy has reportedly intercepted boats smuggling weapons to the group from Iran.
The Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, claimed in a televised speech last week that Israeli ships had stopped entering the Red Sea but the US navy has estimated that about 100 ships are still operating in the waterway, some of which the Houthis may see as targets. It would be surprising if the Houthi’s slowdown in strikes did not in some way reflect an erosion of capabilities, even if some ships entering the Red Sea now carry identifications saying Muslim crew only.
The US said it had hit Houthi positions on four straight days, Wednesday to Saturday, marking one of the most intense periods of strikes on the group since the campaign began on 11 January.
The US ambassador to Yemen, Steven Fagin, last week warned that the US classification of the Houthis as a specially designated global terrorist group would come into force on 16 February if the attacks did not stop. The designation aims to disrupt funding from third parties to the group.
The other constraint upon the Houthis is the fear that a potentially highly advantageous peace deal to end the Yemeni civil war, brokered by Saudi Arabia, might be withdrawn if the attacks continue.
All sides describe the Saudi peace deal as currently frozen, and some in the UN-recognised government in Aden, which was assisted by Saudi Arabia in the war against the Houthis, want to use the moment to rewrite the outline deal.
The UN envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, is working hard to keep the spirit of the deal alive, and Saudi Arabia this week provided a further $250m to keep the Aden government functioning, and to pay for salaries for people to buy food.
It also emerged Djibouti, situated opposite Yemen across the Red Sea and a strong opponent of Israel’s attacks in Gaza, rejected a US plan to install missile launchers in the country to target Yemen. In a BBC interview, Djibouti’s prime minister, Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed, said the US was allowed to deploy only the MIM-104 Patriot air defence system on its territory to protect American military installations in the country from Yemen.
The US was not given the discretion to use Djibouti as a war base against Yemen. Djibouti’s foreign minister, Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, confirmed that his country would not condemn the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab strait, considering them a “legitimate relief for the Palestinians.”
A typical container ship bound for northern Europe, now forced to go around the Cape of Good Hope, instead of the Red Sea, is estimated to carry an extra $1m in fuel.
David Turner is a globe-trotting journalist who brings a global perspective to our readers. With a commitment to shedding light on international events, he explores complex geopolitical issues, offering a nuanced view of the world’s most pressing challenges.