Meeting

Virtual Media Briefing: Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea

Thursday, January 18, 2024
US Central Command via X/Handout/Reuters
Speakers

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations

Dean, Center for Maritime Strategy

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider

Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists discuss Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, American and British responses, and prospects for regional escalation. 

ELDER: Thank you. Hi, everybody. Thanks for joining us for this media briefing on “Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea.” Events are moving very quickly, so I’ll keep this introduction fairly short so we can get straight to the heart of things with our esteemed group of panelists. 

We have Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. We have admirable—Admiral—admirable Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy and the former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa. And we have Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies here at CFR. 

And I’ll just add that we’ll be posting this to CFR.org later on. And you can find a host of other material on CFR.org, and also at the Foreign Affairs website. 

So the Houthis have launched more than thirty-five attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea since mid-November, positioning themselves as responding to—protesting Israel’s response to the October 7 attacks. As of today, the U.S. has launched five strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. Things seem to be—we’ll get to this—but things seem to be also spiraling somehow between Pakistan and Iran. It feels, as each day goes by, that the world is ever closer to the precipice of some conflict even greater than what we’re seeing right now. So thank you to our panelists for joining us to help us make sense of this. 

Steven, I’ll start with you. Maybe you can give us an overview of what we’re dealing with here, of who the Houthis are, so everyone has a baseline. And then also, you know, if you could outline their strategy and what you think their goals really are here. 

COOK: Great, thanks very much, Miram. It’s a great pleasure to be with everybody. It’s a great pleasure to be with my friend Ray Takeyh and Admiral Foggo to discuss this, I think, extraordinarily important issue and the prospects for escalation in the region. I’m sure that many on the call know already some things about the Houthis, but just to clarify I think it’s important to get some baseline here on the Houthis. 

This is a group that has been actually in conflict with the, you know, central government authorities in Yemen for quite some time. It is—it is not a distinct ethnic group, per se, in Yemen. There are—there is a guy named Houthi that the Houthis follow, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. They are Zaidis, or Fiver—they are from the Fiver branch Shiite Islam. They predominate in the north. And since the Yemeni civil war began, they have prevailed in large parts of the country, including the capital, Sana’a. In fact, their taking of the capital in 2014-2015 was the reason why the Saudis intervened in the Yemeni civil war to begin with. 

They fight under the banner, “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, victory for Islam.” And they got involved in the conflict in the Gaza Strip by first trying to penetrate Israeli defenses with drones and ballistic missiles. The United States Navy shot down quite a number of Houthi missiles and drones directed at Israel. Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missile system also, in a first test of it in action, actually shot down Houthi missiles. And so the Houthis shifted their tactics, and began attacking what they believed to be Israeli shipping or Israeli-linked shipping in the Red Sea. 

They then expanded those attacks to broadly include commercial shipping in the region. And they have said that this is an effort—that they will continue to attack shipping as long as the Israelis are engaged in military operations in the Gaza Strip. I’m not exactly as convinced that now, after attacks on thirty-five vessels over the course of the last two months, that it’s really specifically about getting the Israelis to stop. No doubt there is an effort to put economic pressure on the United States and countries in the West to bring pressure to bear on the Israelis to wind their operations.  

But I think that the Houthis’ ability to disrupt the global economy, or at least attempt to disrupt the global economy—and, thus far, they’ve been somewhat successful in forcing commercial shipping lines to reroute their vessels around Africa, which has a number of economic and environmental knock-on effects—I think that there’s now a kind of—the Houthis are engaged in a broader effort to demonstrate that they can open and close the Mandeb Strait and play this very significant role in the global economy and global security that goes well beyond Israel and Gaza.  

ELDER: Thanks.  

Admiral, could you tell us what the U.S. response has looked like? They launched this multinational—or, international Naval force to try and protect shipping in the Red Sea. But could you outline, maybe from a military perspective, what we’re—what we’re dealing with over there? 

FOGGO: Certainly, Miriam. And it’s a pleasure to be here with you, and Steve, and Ray today.  

So the purpose of the United States Navy is—well, there’s several things that we do. One is to keep the sea lines of communication open and to keep commerce flowing around the world, and to protect U.S. and, in certain cases, allied interests. So as you look at the Red Sea, it is a significant vital waterway for trade. And when you start at the Bab-al-Mandeb, things shrink down to a very narrow strait. Then it widens to a couple hundred miles, and 1,400 miles later you get to the Suez Canal. That’s a cash cow for the Egyptians, transit through there of the large tanker and aircraft carries. A million dollars roundtrip, about a half a million each way.  

When the ship, the Ever Given, grounded in there, we were losing about $10 billion of commerce a day. Do the math, 440 million (dollars) an hour. Now, some ships have made it through, thanks to the United States Navy, over 1,500. Some have decided to take the trip around the Cape of Good Hope. That’s an additional ten-day transit. It’s driven up our forty-foot container prices. So to rent one of these containers used to be about $1,500. Now it’s up to $4,000 to $6,000, depending on the transit. It’s curious that COSCO, the China Ocean Shipping Company, has continued to sail through there without any problems. And I see a role for China here, but I don’t see them doing anything. 

So United States Navy took the lead. We have several destroyers that have been operating in the Red Sea. These are magnificent ships. This has been going on since before Christmas. The first response was by USS Carney on 19 October, about twelve days after the Hamas attack on Israel, when the Houthis chose to throw a couple of missiles at Israel. And Carney shot them down. It was a difficult geometry. She also shot down a number of drones. This has been going on every day until, as you pointed out, the United States government made the decision to conduct strikes on the ground.  

So up until that point, we were knocking down the flaming arrows. Now we’re going after the archer. And in the last twenty-four hours, it was interesting because, you know, John Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council has said, hey, we’re not looking for a broadening or a widening of this war. We’re not looking for conflict spreading throughout the Middle East. So that last strike was pretty proportional. Missiles were on the rail. And we have pretty good intelligence, pretty good national technical means. We saw that and we took them out. And so I think the response has been proportional. 

As far as the Navy goes, the Burke-class destroyer is one of the best platforms to do this. It carries guns, the five-inch, fifty-four gun. It can knock down a drone with an air burst projectile. That gun fires about twenty rounds a minute. They’ve been using it. We’ve also been using missiles. And I’m sure it’ll come up, but missiles against drones, you’re looking at a couple of million dollars versus a couple of thousand dollars. But nevertheless, to keep those tankers and our interests in trade going, and to protect our own ships, we’re doing whatever it takes. So I’m pretty proud of those young men and women who’ve been out there since before Christmas doing this mission every day. 

And, you know, I said 1,400 miles long and 220 miles wide. Compared to a big ocean, that’s a bathtub. And so these warships have been in there, mixing it up with the Houthis in a very dangerous location. We’ve also got a naval base down there in Djibouti. And, you know, the Houthis have threatened to attack U.S. military infrastructure in the last forty-eight hours. So we need to be very, very careful as we—as we move forward. But, so far, I think, so good. 

Just last thing, a couple of weeks ago on CBS David Martin asked me something along the lines of, you know, can you guarantee 100 percent knocking down missiles, or preventing attacks on ships, or U.S. ships? Well, no, I can’t. But the track record so far has been pretty good. Some companies, like Maersk and Shell, have decided to go around the Cape of Good Hope. And that increases carbon footprint, fuel use, and costs. We need to get this situation under control so we can get all 100 percent of commerce flowing through the Red Sea. 

ELDER: Thank you. 

Ray, I’d love to talk to you about Iran. I think when people express concern about this conflict growing into something bigger, you know, maybe some sort of direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. So could you please explain to us what the Houthi-Iran relationship is? And as I understand it, the Axis of Resistance has various—you know, various—as they call themselves—various relationships within it. And I would be curious to hear a comparison also of the—you know, the tight—very tight relationship between Iran and Hamas. And how does that compare with how Iran conducts its relationship with the Houthis? 

TAKEYH: Yes. Thank you. Thanks for having me. And it’s good to be with everyone here. 

In terms of the Axis of Resistance, the Axis of Resistance has a hierarchy. And at, actually, the core of it is the Lebanese Hezbollah. And then comes the various other Shiite groups within Iraq and Syria. Hamas actually comes a bit beyond that, in the sense that the operational links with it are not as mature as they would be in terms of Hezbollah. Iran did not create Hamas, as it did with the Lebanese Shiite militia group. But nevertheless, Hamas is important because it’s a Sunni group, and a Sunni group while most of Iran’s allies are Shiite. So it allows Iran to breach that sectarian divide. 

The relation—as Houthis—as Steven was talking about, they subscribe to an unusual branch of Shiism which rejects a lot of hierarchies. But also it doesn’t really subscribe to the Iranian model of clerical organization, you know, with all the structures that they have created—the way Hezbollah does, for instance, adhering to the notion of the velayat-e faqih and so forth. That’s not what they do. They have come, as Steven was mentioning, to their anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli policies by themselves. They were not instigated in that direction by the Iranians. So in that sense, they’re not the creation of Iran. This is sort of a likeminded association. 

And it’s less mature than other—Iran’s relationship. It really comes into existence as an opportunistic attempt to inflict damage on the Saudis at a time when the Saudis went to war in Yemen, and got mired in that civil war, and got entangled in there in the aftermath of Arab Spring. But right now, of course, Houthis do play a role for Iran, which is kind of an important role. Because if you want to preserve Hezbollah for other operations, and you want to increase international pressure on the Israelis, particularly American pressure, you want to be able to increase that pressure with a fairly dispensable proxy, if you want to even call who Houthis that.  

But nevertheless, you want to manage to increase the costs on the international community for not imposing any kind of restraints on Israel, assuming the international community can actually impose restraints on Israel. Which is actually a very big if. So this was an attempt to disrupt maritime trade, as the admiral suggested. It imposed certain costs on the global economy—absorbable costs at this point. So, in a sense, the meeting of minds between Houthis and the Iranians in terms of disruption of commercial traffic in the Gulf came at the right time, given the fact that Iran cannot change the facts on the ground in Gaza. Nor does it want to necessarily inflame the northern front, which may consume Hezbollah itself. 

Could this get out of hand? You know, in the past three, four days Iran has attacked three countries. That’s a real experience. And there was a number of reasons why that has happened. I don’t think it should be ignored that there was a domestic terrorist attack in Iran where eighty-five people were killed in the procession for the late General Suleimani. And this actually plays into some of the attacks that Iranians have made against various spaces or territory of Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan as well. Particularly that Baluch area has been unruly. During the protests last year, the Women Life Freedom protests, it was actually not peaceful in that region. The Iranian government did not announce it, but they imposed martial law. And it was quite violent in that area. So there’s a lot of violence in that area, a lot of arms transference that comes through Pakistan and elsewhere, via Saudis or whoever is doing it. So that area is particularly inflamed in sort of the geography of Iran and its political geography, where there is a considerable degree of unrest. 

ELDER: Thank you. 

I’d like to return to the Pakistan thing in a bit, but let me—let me ask you, Steven. I’m going to quote you to yourself. You wrote in Foreign Policy in December, “If the United States wants to protect freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and its environs, it’s going to have to take the fight directly to the Houthis.” Do you believe that the Biden administration is taking the fight directly to them, and to a degree that would satisfy your analysis of the situation? 

COOK: Well, I think this is probably a question that’s more relevant to Admiral Foggo, but I will answer because you’re quoting me directly to myself—which, by the way, I kind of like. So, look, I think that it’s important to recognize that any use of military force has to be taken with, you know, great, you know, care. And we have so much force, we need to use it with a certain amount of judiciousness. I think freedom of navigation is a global interest of the United States. It’s a core interest of the United States. And to allow a group like the Houthis to have leverage over the freedom of navigation, especially in an area of such importance like the Mandab Strait and the Red Sea, is risking too much. And that I think the administration has finally realized that they do need to take action against the Houthis. 

But I will say that I was speaking with a number of Arab officials recently who said, you know, look, if you’re just going to poke the Houthis, it’s not going to stop. You’re going to have to undertake the kind of military action that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the Houthis to harass and attack shipping in the Gulf. And thus far, I think the administration is more in the—in the former category rather than the latter category. Now I think Admiral Foggo is better positioned to talk about the kind of gradations of escalation and what’s really necessary to do the job here, but I think at a level of principle, there is—this situation calls for the use of military force. 

We’re not talking about, you know, invading Yemen, and changing regimes, and the kinds of things that we’ve done in the past. I’m talking about something that’s genuinely important to the United States and the global economy, and the kind of principles from which we stand in terms of international security. And that’s why I think it’s important that we use military force here against the Houthis. 

ELDER: Thank you. Well, I’ll take your lead. Admiral, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. And, you know, you’ve said that you’re very proud of what the servicemen over there have been doing. But do you believe that it has been enough, or do you see a situation where this might—from the U.S. administration side—might grow into an ever-bigger operation against the Houthis? 

FOGGO: Well, it could possibly. And it could possibly grow into a bigger operation against the malign Iranian influence. And that’s a question that the administration really hasn’t come to grips with publicly. I’m sure they’re talking about it. And I don’t want to be romantic, but if you go back in history—and I talked about, you know, the missions and the raison d’être for the United States Navy, why the Constitution says, you know, maintain a navy and raise an army. Those first six frigates back in 1800, they were fighting the Barbary Wars off Libya and against the dey of Algiers, who was taking U.S.-flagged ships and holding citizens for tribute, so hostage money. We went to war with them. And there were some great heroes of that campaign who had been, you know, immortalized over the U.S. Naval Academy. I was over in Annapolis this morning. 

Fast forward to the tanker wars in 1980 to ’88 in the Arabian Gulf. That was the Iranians attacking, you know, innocent tankers. We reflagged some of those ships. And then we conducted operation Praying Mantis. And we went after the Iranian Navy. And it was rather bloody. There were two ships that were involved in particular who had an early demise, and that was the Sabalan and the Sahand. And those skippers were thumbing their nose at both the tankers and the U.S. Navy and our national interests. And they were sunk as a result. So we took action there. 

Just ten days ago I was talking to my classmate, you know we were plebes together at the Naval Academy, Commander Kirk Lippold, the CO of the USS Cole. His ship was blown up in Yemen in October 12 of 2000. He lost seventeen sailors. And after that incident, you know, attributed to al-Qaida, we did not take action. And Kirk reminded me, what happened, Jamie, one year later? 9/11. And then we were in this global war on terror. So we’ve had cycles, ups and downs. And we all work for—you know, Navy people work for civilians and civilian government. And that government makes a decision, and we will follow through. So where we have taken action, we—Barbary wars, Praying Mantis, tanker wars—we have nipped it in the bud. 

I give credit, however, to this administration for being deliberate. You know, I think National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, John Kirby’s a friend of mine. They don’t want to have a broadening of this conflict because we got enough things going on in the world. They would rather have it resolved. I do subscribe to my two colleagues here, both Ray and Steve, is I don’t buy into this that it’s all about Hamas and the Palestinians. I think this is an excuse for Iran to use a proxy in the form of the Houthis to exacerbate the situation in the Red Sea and to hurt the West with commerce and with damage, and to embarrass the West. 

And we will not stand to be embarrassed. That’s why we’re taking action. That’s why we have the Navy in-house in a very dangerous and precarious situation. But we’ll continue to do it as long as we need to. And, you know, I sit in this building. This is the Navy League building of the United States. The Navy League was started by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. And another person that firmly believed in the reason for the United States of America, an island nation, to have a navy to defend its interests. So I’m fully behind what we’re doing. And I am fully behind deliberate and cautious steps moving forward. 

ELDER: Thank you. Ray, what is your understanding of what the Iranian regime wants right now? My understanding is that, you know, Hamas was more successful than even it thought that it could be for its own aims on October 7. What we’re seeing with the Houthis, day by day. But is your sense that the Iranians are trying to keep a sort of contained situation? Or is this them trying to expand this into a greater conflict? 

TAKEYH: Well, I would characterize this as sort of an incremental and ideally manageable escalation. The idea, again, being that if you inflame Israel’s boundaries to some extent, in a limited way in the north and even in from Syria and boundaries and so forth, if you can be disruptive of the global commerce and the global commons, as we saw with the Houthis. And hopefully, at that time, the perception would be that the international community and the United States, that don’t wish to expand the conflict, will fear expansion and therefore try to impose some kind of a settlement on the Israelis. The core assumption here is the latter one, that the international community and the United States can impose constraints on Israel. Israel is a sovereign country dealing with a very complicated situation. It’s a traumatized country. But that’s the core logic.  

Now this sort of a thing can get out of hand, as we have seen. Again, the strikes that happened recently have something to do with what happened inside Iran itself, with the terrorist attack from ISIS, that has taken responsibility for it, and also some of the unruly, disorderly activity that is taking place on the eastern frontier with the sort of whole Baluchistan area. And actually there had been ongoing security dialogue between Iran and Pakistan. The day before the Iranians attacked, the foreign minister of Iran was talking to his counterpart in Pakistan. And then, of course, the strike comes, and the Pakistanis respond. I think nine people have been killed, allegedly all of them non-Iranians. 

And there’s one thing that has happened in these strikes. Pakistan is the first country, as far as I can tell, since 1988, the end of Iran-Iraq war, that has retaliated on Iranian territory for something that Iran has done. Not on high seas, not against Iranian proxies in various ways, but actually within Iranian territory. I don’t think anybody else has done that—the United States, Israel. Israel has launched some operations about the assassination of scientists, or what have you. But this is a—this is a certain—a certain threshold was breached here. And everybody needs to be—consider that. 

Right now, there is a Chinese and Saudi mediation between Iran and Pakistan. What could go wrong? (Laughs.) The Chinese probably have more leverage than the Saudis at this particular point. The rhetoric out of Iran today was actually more respectful, suggesting that they wish no harm to Pakistani people. And Pakistan has been a longtime strategic partner with Iran, and so forth. So I think there’s an inclination to sort of subside this conflict. But there will also be a pressure to do a tic-tac kind of retaliation, as we saw. Whether this can subside at this point is in the interests of all—of both parties, Iran and Pakistan. And I suspect they’re working on that rather diligently, through mediation of various outside actors. 

Overall, whether Iran wants—to return to your original question—for international community to impose restraint on Israel, for Hamas to survive in some form—not as an organization in a refugee camp or Ramallah, but to survive the Israeli onslaught in some form. And therefore, the argument will be that the narrative—for Hamas to come out of this was some kind of a narrative of success which is not a pure fabrication. And finally, for Israel to be entangled in that area for a time to come, which will sap its energy, divide its politics, and potentially cause divisions between Israel and some members of the international community. 

By the way, all those three things are sort of likely, in a sense. So the Iranians might come out of this if they can keep their head with some degree of success as they would define it, I think. 

ELDER: I’ll just ask a quick follow-up to that and we’ll go from there. But what do you think the Biden administration’s strategy should be in that case if, you know, they see a successful Iran emerging from this? What would you like to see from them? 

TAKEYH: Well, it’s—again, it’s not really for me to say. I would—it would be very difficult for—I think, for Hamas as an organization to be destroyed. I don’t know what it means, Hamas is an idea. But I do think that who comes out of this with a narrative of success is important. It’s important for the sort of political climate of the region, for the viability of the access of resistance. If one of its prized members who has engaged in this daring attack survives with its leadership intact and much of its military force intact, its influence sometime intact, that’s not necessarily where you want to be the day after. 

ELDER: Do you— 

COOK: Well, I think that’s likely why the Israeli military operations are unfolding in the way that they have and why the Biden administration has been so reluctant to actually use pressure to get the Israelis to wind it down. 

I agree with you, Ray. I think the Israelis are not in any position where they’re taking advice from anybody. But I do think that the narrative of success is very, very important here. If you go back to the summer of 2006, when the war between Hezbollah and Israel ended and it was not a clear defeat for Hezbollah there was a narrative of success there that served the Axis of Resistance well.  

So as long as—and so that’s why the Israelis seem so intent on carrying on this fight despite the enormous amount of damage and the enormous amount of international criticism that they’re taking as a result of it. 

ELDER: Whoever wants to take this can take this. But one thing that I’ve noticed is that—speaking of narrative that the Houthi narrative has changed a lot it seems in recent years, whereas before it was a lot of, you know, although they showed death to Israel, death to America on the flags, wrapping themselves up in this sort of anti-colonialist resistance, you know, the—fighting U.S./Israeli imperialism as they framed it, it seems to have won them some, you know, fanboys and fangirls at least on the far left in this country. 

But I’m wondering to what degree do you think that that is an important shift or is that something that can be sort of ignored for the more military-political strategy? Is that something that should be countered in some way? 

COOK: I’d just say—go ahead, Ray. 

TAKEYH: I’d just say one thing before Steve. If Houthis are capturing the imagination of the left on American campuses there’s something seriously wrong with the left on the American campuses. I’ll just go to—sorry, Steve. I interrupted you. 

COOK: No. No. That’s fine, and, you know, I would align myself with that statement, certainly. I mean, the fact that the Houthis are taking on, though, this kind of language is interesting because it speaks to the kind of way in which the Axis of Resistance sees this conflict and that the conflict is not just in Gaza.  

It’s not just in the Red Sea. It’s not just in—it is actually—they’re fighting actually a global conflict. And the fact that they seek to capture the imagination of the global left and align them, I don’t think it’s going to have a very significant effect on the way in which the administration pursues the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, but you will see debates about this where perhaps you didn’t in 1987-1988 about Operation Praying Mantis and bringing most of the Iranian navy to the bottom of the Gulf in about three days. 

So it will provide—and because everything is narrative and because we have social media. But I don’t see it really impacting what the United States actually does. It strikes me that this would be more kind of Washington inside baseball type stuff. 

But I will say you, Miriam, you started out with, you know, talking about the, you know, the flag under which they fight. I had an opportunity to meet with a Houthi spokesman who’s been, you know, quoted any number of times in any—you know, the newspapers of records, this guy Mohammed Abdul Salam. 

In early 2018 he had a delegation of Houthis. I was among a number of think tankers who met with him and they took this very, very seriously—this death to America, death to Israel, victory for Islam thing very, very seriously and they actually informed me that, you know, they wished they had more room on the flag for the death to Saudi Arabia and vowed that one day that they would drive to Riyadh. 

This is—you know, this is—gives you a sense of the sort of world view of this group and that, you know, they’ve often been described as kind of ragtag and so on and so forth. But they are ideologically committed and that makes it much—that makes it a significant challenge as well to my mind, which requires the use of military force here. 

ELDER: Thank you. 

We are going—oh, sorry. Admiral—I keep calling you admirable Admiral. If you—if there’s any thoughts that you’d like to share maybe on what you see as the next stage of, like, what we can expect, say, in the next week to two weeks from the U.S. forces out there in the Red Sea. 

FOGGO: Yeah. Thank you, Miriam. 

You know, just piggybacking on what Steve and Ray said, I think one of the things we have to do is stop legitimizing the Houthis, and Steve talks about that in his writings and he also talked about that in the beginning here. 

You know, they’re not a regional power. They’re not in charge of anything. They’re in Yemen and they’re using violence against the Yemeni government and a sovereign state to try to take control, and by paying attention to them—they’re getting worldwide attention and I dare say a lot of people probably think, well, the Houthis are the ones that are running Yemen. 

You know, on one hand you could say, well, technically yes through the use of violence and arms. But legitimizing them doesn’t help. So the steps that the U.S. government just took to add them back to the list of terrorist organizations is probably the right step in the right direction to delegitimize them.  

Because it hasn’t worked—diplomacy hasn’t worked. There’s been a lot of diplomacy. There’s been a lot of Secretary of State Tony Blinken doing shuttle diplomacy going back and forth saying, stop this. You know, we’re trying to tamp down what’s happening in Israel with Hamas and we’re going to a lower level of operations, some of which is true. 

But we’ve got to take those measures to make them look like the bad guys they are and to prevent them from conducting these strikes. Again, earlier I said, you know, hitting missiles on a rail is proportional to try to limit the campaign and the spread of something that looks like a regional war. I think we’ll probably continue to do that. We’ll continue to have a naval presence in the Red Sea. 

I want to say it’s not just luck. It’s professionalism that has brought us this far, where we have not had an untoward incident with a U.S. Navy ship. Some tankers and some bulk carriers have been hit. To my knowledge, nobody has been killed yet. How long will it take before that luck runs out? And so perhaps in the next month or so more drastic action will be taken and we’ll have to look hard at the question of it’s not just the Houthis. It’s the people backing them. 

Most recently in the last couple of days I was both proud and sad. Proud of the United States Navy for the operation that took place out of CENTCOM where our U.S. Navy SEALs boarded an Iranian dhow and on Twitter or X you saw the take. There were rocket motor engines, nozzles. Looked like guidance systems, potentially a warhead that were being carried to the Houthis for use in some of these drones and rockets and, unfortunately, it looks like we lost two Navy SEALs—the search and rescue operation is still going on but it’s been a couple of days now and it’s pretty rough out there—and that is a very high price to pay, which shows the dedication of both the U.S. government and the United States Navy to bring this conflict to a conclusion. 

ELDER: OK. We will open it up now to questions. I’ll just remind everybody to please identify yourselves and your affiliation, and I’ll turn it over to Emily to handle the questions. 

OPERATOR: Thank you so much. 

(Gives queuing instructions.) 

Our first question will come from Farah Stockman. 

Q: Hi. It’s Farah Stockman. I’m with the editorial board of the New York Times. Thanks for doing this. 

I’m curious what you can tell us about the targets of the Iranian strikes. It seems notable that they’re all in pretty friendly countries. I haven’t been able to see any statement out of Syria. But what do we know about their—the people who were taken out and is there any grain of truth in what Iran says when it accuses these targets of being affiliated or funded by the United States or Israel? 

TAKEYH: There has been no official comment from the Syrians. They’re kind used to their territory being bombed by other people. The Israelis have been, I think, active in the Kurdistan area. I’m not quite sure if the Iranians have the right target when it destroyed that house and killed those people. 

But the response from Iraq is an interesting one because it’s been a fairly robust response for Iraq. They withdrew their ambassador. They have lodged a complaint with the United Nations and they have even presumably taken their case to the Arab League. 

That reflects the fact that perhaps there’s some splintering in the Shi’a community within Iraq and there’s a movement toward greater degree of nationalism as opposed to sectarian politics. Their targets in Pakistan, they—you know, they have announced a number of the areas but they have suggested that no Pakistanis were actually killed. And, frankly, Pakistanis have suggested that no Iranians were killed in their retaliation, although I should say in the Pakistani retaliation four children were killed. 

Do I think there is merit to the Iranian case that some of these attacks were instigated by those allied with the United States or Israel? Well, it is the Iranian official position that ISIS was created by the United States and Israel so any attack by ISIS, in their imagination, would have to be attributed to United States and to a lesser extent Israel. 

And in their kind of cosmology, in their view—in their at least stated opinion General Soleimani was killed particularly because he was so effective against ISIS, an instrument of American hegemony in the region. 

Now, everything I said is just as absurd as it sounds so—but that is their position. I don’t attach much credibility to it but others can comment on it as well if they wish. 

ELDER: All right. Do we have any more questions? 

OPERATOR: The next question comes from a C. Winter. 

Q: Hi. Chase Winter with Energy Intelligence. 

Just a question. I mean, a lot of experts—Yemen experts you talk to kind of suggest that, you know, these airstrikes on the Houthis and everything the U.S. is doing, the terrorist designation, just sort of emboldens them further, and that really won’t have an impact on their behavior particularly around shipping. And today, you know, you have Biden actually admitting it. He says, you know, are they going to stop—are they stopping the Houthis? No. They are going to continue? Yes, he said, right? So it’s, like, what’s the objective here, ultimately? I mean, if they can’t be deterred, is this just performative, or—and does it risk sort of a wider escalation? 

COOK: Admiral, do you want to go and then I’ll pick up on where you left off? 

FOGGO: Sure. Yeah, I think can they be deterred—will they be—will the Houthis be determined to continue. I think their track record indicates that they will continue to conduct strikes and over the weekend reporting in the New York Times, you know, from the thirty different sites, 150 different missiles or bombs that were dropped on those sites were fairly effective in destroying those targets.  

But that was a small fraction of the broader capability that the Houthis can bring to bear, and as I said, in the last couple of days you’re seeing some very clinical pinpoint strikes on things like missiles on the rail.  

So I’d kind of ask the rhetorical question: If you destroy a missile on the rail or several missiles on the rails, are you, in fact, having an impact on strikes on shipping in the Red Sea? I think the obvious answer is yes; probably saved a few lives there. 

I go back to my own experience in the Libya campaign operation Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn. I was the Joint Task Force J-3 in the Mediterranean for that operation and I carried over as a NATO commander into Operation Unified Protector. 

That went on for nine months, and if you look back in the records it’s something like 19,000 sorties launched and about 9,600 precision-guided munitions. That was a coalition of the willing and NATO that were conducting those strikes in 2011 and it just goes to show that we as a coalition or unilaterally as the United States or in some security organization can probably continue this for a very long time.  

I think the Houthis should take note of that and the fact that we can continue to attrit their assets that are being used violently against Western shipping in the Red Sea and eventually come to some kind of terms where it stops and, of course, that will all depend on the outcome, particularly what’s going on in the eastern Mediterranean right now.  

But let me defer to my two colleagues for a comment as well. 

COOK: Well, I’ll just say that the—that this underlines—the question underlines the point that the Arab official that I was speaking with was making which is that if we are merely going to engage in kind of a poking or a pinprick against the Houthis it’s likely to continue. But if we are serious about doing a lot of damage to the Houthis, whether they are motivated or not if we do a lot of damage to their capabilities they won’t be able to attack shipping in the Red Sea. 

And so it clearly requires the United States to continue to—as the admiral said, continue to undertake operations against the Houthi capabilities until they can no longer do it because if in fact the analysis is that they’ll continue to do it then you have to destroy their capabilities. 

I don’t think there’s anything performative about it. I think that we’re certainly capable of doing it. I think we’re constantly looking for the quick and risk-free approach and there’s going to be nothing quick or anything risk free about it. 

But I think that in this case when such an important global interest is at stake like freedom of navigation it is worth the American effort to invest in ensuring that the Houthis of all people do not gain leverage over freedom of navigation, the global economy, and the geopolitics of that part of the world. 

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Terry McCarthy. 

Q: Hi. This is Terry McCarthy. I work with the American Society of Cinematographers here in Hollywood. 

I’d like to pick up on something that Ray talked about, the narrative of success, which as you put it now seems to be favoring the Iranians—that how this plays out would seem to be in their interests. 

So to flip that and to say what is the narrative of success that would favor the United States and also Israel it seems to me the nightmare for Iran is that there is a deal that’s done and the Abraham Accords and the deal with Saudi gets back on track, which is what they—their biggest nightmare and that would be something that would then put all these proxies, if you like, on the wrong side of the bargain including the Houthis because then the Middle East completely changes, and I’m wondering if that is something that the Iranians—in that sense the Iranians would like to prolong the conflict in Gaza, not force a settlement on Gaza right now. 

Does that make sense? 

TAKEYH: Yes, I think it does. 

I do believe that the conflict in Gaza will be prolonged and I do think—and my friends Steven and the admiral can comment on this—that this would require, it seems to me, a considerable degree of Israeli engagement if not occupation of Gaza and then come to the task of reconstruction and when there’s a donor group and so on and so forth. 

So in that particular sense the prolongation of Israeli involvement in Gaza will persist and then comes the aftermath of this. There will be, it seems to me, a reckoning in Israeli politics. There will be commissions who study this and the Israeli politics are likely to be contested for quite some time. 

There is another aspect of this narrative of success that is more practical from Tehran’s perspective; namely, its attempt to consolidate control—I wouldn’t say control—consolidate its influence over the many parts of Axis of Resistance, kind of bringing them together more in a sort of a(n) operational cohesion. And that is actually something that is happening. 

They have deepened their relationships not only with themselves and various proxies but between those proxies. So as a sort of a(n) auxiliary force across the region that is projecting—that projects itself on behalf of Iran it’s likely to come out of this experience in a more cohesive and disciplined manner. 

This is not to suggest that it was ineffective before. I think that during the time of Syrian civil war the Iranians marshaled about 70,000 members of the variety of militias to fight in that particular conflict and in conjunction with the Russian air power it actually did turn the tide. 

But as I said, I think the Israelis will have that preoccupation for some time. Whether the Abraham Accords and the biggest pieces of that being Saudi Arabia can resume I suspect any resumption of it will have much more of a focus on the prospective Palestinian state or movement toward that state and the problem with that aspect of the conversation is the two-state solution is not something that is particularly valid in Israel or among the Palestinians. (Laughs.) 

So this complexity of this issue, certainly, and its prolongation—it’s likely to prolong—will benefit Iran in some respects in that sense. (My time ?). 

FOGGO: Yeah. I would add a couple things. 

One, if you look at the way that military planners think and military planners provide good military advice to civilian leadership and higher authorities, you know, we have this joint operational planning evaluation system which I used all the time as a flag officer.  

Mission analysis—what is the mission, what is the end state—and in military parlance some would think that these are simple terms but the end state is to defeat Houthi aggression and restore freedom of—so that’s one, defeat Houthi aggression that’s being used against Western shipping in the Red Sea and terrorizing these elements that are transiting our goods and services and causing prices to go up all over the world.  

Restore freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and restore peace and security to the status quo. That’s the way the military looks at these things and that would be an appropriate end state, as well as preventing the spread of the crisis further throughout the region. 

One of the things we haven’t touched on today but I think is really, really important is the Israelis are drawing down some operations in Gaza and they say they’re going to more special operations and targeted operations. I worry about what’s going to happen in Lebanon, and so far Nasrallah and Hezbollah have kind of held their ground and stayed inside Lebanon. There’s been saber rattling on both sides.  

We need to tamp that down and keep that under control, and if we can do those things I think that’s a moral or a strategic defeat for Iran and then that becomes—the end state becomes the theory of victory which I think the administration would be very happy with and then we can proceed with, as you suggested, sir, the Abraham Accords and discussion with Saudi that got derailed as a result of the Hamas attack on Israel. 

COOK: I think Admiral Foggo brings up a really important point here, that the administration seems to believe that one of the ways it can bring the Israelis around is working through Riyadh, essentially bank-shotting normalization and getting the Israelis to change their tactics in the Gaza Strip. 

But I think that that’s unlikely to happen. I think that presently the Saudi requirement and demand on the Israelis is much too high. But if there’s a fundamental change in sort of the regional picture where the Iranians suffer a strategic defeat then you can proceed with normalization in an entirely different way.  

If the Saudis are going to—if we’re in a situation where the Saudis are now going to demand that there be a two-state solution or something close to it it’s certainly not going to work. So I think the Abraham Accords—and neither of those things are likely to happen.  

So I think the Abraham Accords such as they are will continue. I don’t think that the Emiratis are interested in breaking their relations with the Israelis. The Bahrainis don’t have an ambassador in Tel Aviv right now but they’re not going to break their relations with them. It’s a similar situation with Morocco. There’s no movement forward like we had hoped through the Negev process and other things. 

But at the same time the Abraham Accords don’t seem at least quite yet to really be in jeopardy, although Saudi normalization seems far off as a result of the conflict, pardon me. 

OPERATOR: So I think that was the last of our questions unless anyone else would like to add. 

ELDER: Great. Well, I guess I’ll—maybe I’ll wrap up with one last question and we can do it like a speed round. 

If—you know, and I know that most analysts despise prediction but let’s say, you know, we’re sitting here six months from now and having a similar discussion or a similar topic. Do you think that we’re still discussing the Houthi issue and just where are we six months from now? Are we in our bunkers or do you have some more hope that, you know, all actors on all sides can contain this in some kind of a way? 

FOGGO: Well, I’ll start.  

You know, I’ll jump on the hand grenade and say I don’t think that either the Houthis or the Iranians have considered the amount or the ability of U.S. forces or coalition forces to respond to this kind of violence. 

I mean, so far the thirty targets, the 150 missiles, have been delivered. It’s a fraction of the capability that we are able to deliver and I would think—I would hope that they would keep that in mind because it can get a lot worse for the bad guys. 

The other thing to consider that we haven’t talked about but I think we—it’s the elephant in the room is this is an election year and there’s going to be a lot of blows across the aisle, one side to the other, on what happens here as well as all the other things that we’re arguing about in this country. 

So I think the administration is going to be under a lot of pressure to bring this to a conclusion and how they do that remains to be seen. So far, as I’ve said, they’ve been very deliberate and cautious and, you know, I laud them for that. Probably waited a little too long before we went ashore and started taking out some of these missile sites.  

But it’s going to be a very interesting ride for the next six months, and over to my two colleagues for anything else. 

COOK: I’d just say I certainly hope we’re not talking about the Houthis and the threats to the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea six months from now. I would hope that by then the United States will have used a sufficient amount of force in order to make sure that the strait in the Red Sea remains open to shipping. 

TAKEYH: I will say that as the October 7 conflict began the purpose of the Iranian foreign policy was to be mischievous while immunizing their territory from attack. That line was crossed yesterday by the Pakistanis. 

Whether that particular development will impose some kind of a discipline on them to me at this point remains doubtful because they still are focused correctly on the rhetoric coming out of the Western countries about the imperative of not expanding the conflict which means targeting Iranian proxies while maintaining Iranian territory as unmolested. 

So long as that is preserved, that logic on the American and Israeli side, I think you can count them on being mischievous. But I don’t—I want to leave this conversation with the following, that something quite dramatic did happen with Pakistanis attacking Iranian territory for something that Iranians had done outside their boundaries. 

FOGGO: Just one point to add, Miriam, on that. 

You know, during COVID the price of a container—to ship a container worldwide was about $20,000. As I said, it’s climbed from about 1,500 (dollars) to 4(,000 dollars) to $6,000 depending on whether you’re going through the Red Sea or around the Cape of Good Hope to deliver to the Mediterranean or to the High North and the Baltic. 

If those prices continue to go up and insurance rates continue to go up and we start seeing it in our pocketbooks and we start seeing inflation rise again just when we thought we had it under control there’s going to be a lot of pressure from the American people to do something more and probably a lot—they’re going to see it in Europe—inflation in Europe before we see it here.  

We haven’t seen it yet. Some minor things but, you know, gas prices going up, commodities going up, goods and services going up. People are going to be screaming for a solution. They’re going to want it now, now, now. And that’s going to drive this conflict to the next stage, whatever that is, and we’ve talked about a lot of options here. 

ELDER: All right. Well, thank you all. I’ll say thanks to our wonderful panelists. Thank you, Admiral James Foggo. Thank you, Steven Cook. Thank you, Ray Takeyh.  

And I will also remind everybody that this video will be posted on CFR.org, where you can also find plenty of other wonderful and informative pieces both on the Houthis and the wider Gaza-Israel conflict. 

Thank you all for joining us and thank you to the panelists. 

COOK: Thank you. Thanks, Miriam. 

FOGGO: Thank you. 

COOK: Thanks, Admiral. Thanks, Ray. 

(END) 

Top Stories on CFR

Ukraine

Russia’s early setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine could have foreclosed on some of President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping war objectives, but he is unlikely to relent given the conflict’s momentum.  

RealEcon

The Federal Reserve’s dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment presents trade-offs as the Fed grapples with the next move of interest rates. 

China

CFR experts discuss President Joe Biden’s decision to increase tariffs on various Chinese imports and the implications for the U.S. economy and U.S.-China relations.