Iran has rejected concerns expressed by the UK about rising tensions in the Red Sea, insisting that there must first be peace in Gaza. For weeks, commercial vessels deemed to have links to Israel have been targeted by Yemen’s Ansarullah movement, better known as the Houthis. The Iran-backed group is demanding a truce between Hamas and Israel in exchange for a halt to its attacks.

Meanwhile, an Iranian flotilla has entered the Red Sea as the UK says it is ready to take “direct action” against the Houthis to protect shipping. Separately, senior Iranian officials have met a Houthi spokesman in Tehran and commended the Yemeni movement for its “strong” support of the Palestinians amid the Gaza war.

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron on Dec. 31 stated that he had spoken with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian about tensions in the Red Sea.

In his first call with Amir-Abdollahian since becoming the UK’s top diplomat on Nov. 13, Cameron said he had “made clear” that Iran “shares responsibility for preventing” Houthi attacks on commercial vessels.

Cameron also asserted that he had noted Iran’s “long-standing support” for the Houthis in the call.

Houthi attacks in the Red Sea

Hours later, Amir-Abdollahian wrote on Twitter/X that he had “warned” Cameron about the “serious consequences of continuing to support the evil actions” of Israel.

The Iranian foreign minister charged that the “Islamic Republic and its allies are always a positive part of regional developments and security,” in an apparent response to Cameron’s criticism of the Houthis and Iran’s support for the Yemeni movement.

Separately, a readout of the call issued by the Iranian foreign ministry quoted Amir-Abdollahian as saying that the “root cause” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back to the 1948 establishment of Israel, in which Britain had a “clear role.”

The Houthis have been targeting vessels that they say are linked to Israel or bound for Israeli ports. The Yemeni group has described its actions as in support of the Palestinians following the outbreak of the Gaza war in Oct. 2023, demanding a cease-fire in exchange for a halt to its attacks.

A day after his conversation with Cameron, Amir-Abdollahian met Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam in Tehran.

The Iranian foreign ministry said Amir-Abdollahian offered his “appreciation and thanks” to the Houthis for their “strong and authoritative” support for the Palestinians.

Abdusalam also met other top officials on Dec. 31, including Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Akbar Ahmadian.

With several major shipping companies avoiding the strategic Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea since early December, UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps suggested on Jan. 1 that Britain is open to taking “direct action” against the Houthis.

Shapps wrote in an op ed that the UK “won’t hesitate to take further action to deter threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.”

Notably, Iranian media reported on the same day that a regular Navy flotilla had entered the Red Sea via Bab Al-Mandab.

According to Iranian media reports, the flotilla is led by the Alborz destroyer. Of note, the regular Navy operates in parallel with the naval forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

With the Hamas-Israel war showing no signs of abating, the Houthis will likely continue to attempt to disrupt shipping in the Red Sea. While the move is described as being in support of the Palestinians, the Houthis are likely also seeking to improve their negotiating position in peace talks with Saudi Arabia.

Tensions in the Red Sea are likely to continue to rise as the US-led coalition establishes its presence, and especially if clashes with Houthi forces continue. The latter may elevate pressure on the Joe Biden administration to impose sanctions on the Houthis as well as take military action inside Yemen.

While Iran is believed to have provided the Houthis with significant anti-ship capabilities, the Islamic Republic may also opt to expand its presence in the Red Sea region. However, unlike in the Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Iranian and US assets are not likely to directly engage one another.

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