USS Carney in the Mediterranean Sea

The Right Response to Red Sea Ship Attacks: Dismantle Iran’s Proxy Axis

Responding to initial reports of an attack on the USS Carney in the Red Sea on Sunday, the Biden administration belatedly declared that the warship was not attacked; it simply shot down drones heading for an unspecific target during a series of attacks on shipping off the Yemeni coast.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels, an Iranian proxy, readily claimed credit for the attacks, which are part of a broader campaign to push the U.S. out of the Middle East and isolate its crucial ally, Israel. A rational Washington would respond with force to reset — or, more accurately, establish — deterrence, destroying Houthi launch sites and compelling Iran either to escalate elsewhere or to accept the loss of its proxy.

Indeed, the best way to defeat Iran’s current offensive is to destroy its “Axis of Resistance,” member by member.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack against Israel was the most barbaric element of a much broader plan by Iran. The Islamic Republic has constructed the Axis of Resistance, an alliance of proxies and state-enablers, with painstaking care since the late 2000s. The axis operates through a unique combination of standard non-state tactics and regular state activities.

Its model member, Lebanese Hezbollah, demonstrates Iran’s underlying objective in each geography. Hezbollah infiltrated and displaced the Lebanese state over a 20-year period and, today, is capable of ruling half the country while manipulating politics in the other half.

Iran’s strategy through the Axis of Resistance is, therefore, one of state capture on a longer timescale.

Alongside Lebanon, Iran has executed this plan in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Since 2014, Iran has dominated Iraqi politics through its control of various Shia militias, foremost among them Kataib Hezbollah, which comprise the Iraqi “Popular Mobilization Forces,” Iraq’s de facto military after the stunning ISIS offensive in 2014. Naturally, divisions remain in Iraqi politics, but Iraq increasingly has become an Iranian possession.

In Syria, Iran’s plan has been to prop up the Assad regime while slowly capturing its security services and thus absorbing the state. It has yet to succeed fully, but Syria is well on its way to being a full-fledged proxy.

Yemen, by contrast, is unique. The easiest route into the Yemeni state was backing the Houthis, a tribal Zaidi Yemeni organization with Zaidi Shia religious affiliations. Since 2021, Hamas has been a full-fledged axis member as well.

The Axis of Resistance provides Iran significant benefits, including “implausible deniability.” A comparison to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine is illustrative: Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region with Russian soldiers — the Kremlin’s “Little Green Men” who wore Russian uniforms, used Russian weapons, spoke Russian, and employed Russian military tactics, techniques and procedures. Ukraine’s Donbas “separatists” also were transparently Russian-designed, considering the number of Russian security services personnel involved in that war’s opening weeks. Yet the fact that Russia denied involvement in both events meant Europe and the U.S. could pretend an invasion was a civil war to which Russia was not party.

Similarly, the sheer number of proxies Iran employs in its axis means that Tehran can deny (albeit implausibly, except to the credulous) any involvement in specific attacks — whether against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, against Israel on Oct. 7, or now off the Yemeni coast — compelling hair-splitting distinctions between Iranian “backing” and Iranian “involvement.”

Read the rest at The Messenger.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.

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