TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Escalating Regional Activity
April 3, 2017

Iran’s Escalating Regional Activity

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Iran is increasing support for several of its regional allies in a direct challenge to its primary regional adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

• Iran’s provision of anti-ship and other missiles to the Houthi rebels in Yemen enables Iran to project power on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

• Iran’s supplies of lethal weaponry to Shi’a militants in Bahrain, coupled with U.S. and Bahrain government responses, could escalate Bahrain’s internal conflict.

• The Trump administration is undertaking and contemplating several steps to counter Iran’s activities, but U.S. options also carry significant risks.

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Recent press reports and U.S. statements indicate that Iran is increasing what the Trump administration terms ‘destabilizing and provocative’ activities in Yemen and Bahrain—the one Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member that has been rocked by significant unrest since 2011. Iran has been providing material support to the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen and underground militant groups in Bahrain for several years, but the level and sophistication of the support appears to be escalating. This suggests that Iran has been emboldened by sanctions relief related to the 2015 nuclear agreement, as well as by successful support—in concert with Russia—of the Assad regime in Syria. Iran may also be seeking to signal to the Trump administration that Tehran is not cowed by the new administration’s harder line toward Iran and closer strategic alignment with the GCC states. Seeking to maintain the potential for diplomacy, Iran’s leaders claim that their support for these regional allies is a reaction to Saudi, GCC, and U.S. policies, and Iran has recently sought to reduce tensions through direct dialogue with GCC leaders. 

That Iran’s support for the Houthis has evolved from providing relatively minor amounts and types of arms to a more strategic buildup was revealed by General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, in March 29 testimony before Congress. Gen. Votel stated that the U.S. military is concerned that Iran, through the Houthis, is now threatening freedom of navigation through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key chokepoint between the western coast of Yemen and the Horn of Africa. According to Votel: “We have seen…with the support of Iran…the migration of capabilities that we previously observed in the Strait of Hormuz, a layered defense, consist[ing] of coastal defense missiles and radar systems, mines, explosive boats that have been migrated from the Strait of Hormuz to this particular area…threatening commerce and ships and our security operations in that particular area.” Gen. Votel’s testimony comes a few months after the Houthis deployed anti-ship weaponry and related tactics against Saudi, UAE, and U.S. ships, although U.S. countermeasures prevented any damage to U.S. vessels. Gen. Votel’s assertion suggests that Iran may be seeking to use the Houthis as a proxy similar to Lebanese Hizballah, in this case to project power against Saudi Arabia and into the Red Sea.

In Bahrain, Iran’s rhetorical support for a 2011 Shi’a uprising appears to be evolving into the provision of increasingly sophisticated weaponry for small, but lethal, underground militant groups. These groups include the al Ashtar Brigades, which has claimed responsibility for several bombings of Bahraini security forces.  These violent groups are separate from—and routinely denounced by—political societies such as Wefaq that use peaceful forms of protest and have engaged in dialogue with the government. In late 2015, Bahraini authorities uncovered a weapons factory that appeared to contain Iran-supplied machinery to manufacture so-called ‘explosively-formed projectiles’ (EFPs) similar to those that Iran-backed Shi’a militias used to significant effect against U.S. armor in Iraq. If the Bahrain government’s assertions are accurate, Iran may be seeking to steer the Shi’a uprising into a full-blown insurgency, or at the very least position Bahraini Shi’a groups to resist a repeat of the Saudi-led military intervention against the initial uprising in 2011. The explosives uncovered at arms factories could also be used in terror attacks against the sprawling headquarters for U.S. naval operations in the Gulf, located outside the Bahraini capital of Manama. On March 17, the Trump administration designated two al Ashtar Brigades leaders as ‘specially designated global terrorists,’ and openly accused Iran of supporting the group.

Iran’s increasing support for these regional proxies poses dilemmas for the Trump administration, which has characterized Iran as an adversary and ended the Obama administration’s concept of using the nuclear deal to work with Tehran to resolve regional conflicts. Gen. Votel said in his March 29 testimony that, “It is my view that Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability in this part of the world.” In Yemen, the Trump administration is weighing increased support for the Saudi-led coalition that is battling the Houthis on the ground. The administration might be contemplating direct support for a long-planned UAE-led offensive to capture the key port city of Hodeida from the Houthis. Such an engagement risks drawing the U.S. more deeply into the Yemen conflict, particularly if UAE forces falter and require U.S. intervention to complete the mission. More limited—and presumably less risky—options such as U.S. strikes against Houthi missile installations also are under consideration. In Bahrain, the Trump administration has muted U.S. criticism of the Bahrain government, going so far as to drop human rights conditions on the sale of additional American F-16s. The policy is intended to send a strong signal to Iran that the U.S. firmly supports its GCC allies against Iran’s provocative behavior. However, the U.S. actions could backfire by driving the peaceful bulk of the Bahraini Shi’a opposition toward the radical groups backed by Iran, virtually ensuring that any uprising evolves into a long-term insurgency.

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