It has been a recurring theme of Iran’s innate hostility towards the West that, irrespective of the ayatollahs’ constant threats, Tehran has invariably shied away from provoking a direct confrontation.

The last time the Iranians came face-to-face with Western firepower was in the dying days of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Desperate to turn the tide of the conflict in their favour, they attempted to starve the West of vital energy supplies by blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow stretch of water at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Back then, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was reduced to threatening international shipping by firing rocket-propelled grenades from rubber dinghies. Nevertheless, it was a tactic that succeeded in causing major disruption, prompting a short-lived spike in global oil prices.

Security was soon restored, though, after the US and its allies, including Britain, deployed a powerful armada of warships in the Gulf guaranteeing the safe passage of oil tankers passing through the Strait. Subsequent attempts by Iran to attack international shipping were easily repulsed, forcing the Iranians to abandon the tactic.

Since then, while Tehran has lost none of its deep-seated antagonism towards the West, it has adopted a more subtle approach, preferring to rely on its extensive network of proxies throughout the Middle East to do its dirty work.

As Western forces learnt to their cost during the recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, Iranian-backed militias were highly effective at killing and maiming significant numbers of American and British troops without requiring Tehran to involve itself directly.

Now Tehran is resorting to the same tactics again as it seeks to escalate the Gaza conflict into a wider regional war. It is encouraging groups such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon to open new fronts in a bid to intensify the pressure on Israel and the US.

Iran’s official position, of course, is that it has no desire to provoke a direct confrontation with the US and its allies, a policy adopted after two US aircraft carrier battle groups were sent to the region after the October 7 attacks.

Tehran’s reluctance to involve itself openly in the Gaza conflict was clearly evident when the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in November and told him that Iran was not prepared to enter the war.

What Khamenei did not admit, however, was that Iran would instead encourage its numerous allies in the region to provoke further unrest, an approach that has resulted in the recent upsurge in attacks carried out by the Houthis and Hezbollah.

While, back in the 1980s, the Iranians ultimately failed in their attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, their interest in disrupting global trade – especially shipping carrying merchandise to the West – has not abated, leading them to develop a new generation of anti-ship missiles.

These weapons have been passed to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are now employing them to target international trade routes in the Red Sea. Initially, the Houthis claimed that they were only interested in targeting vessels destined for Israel. More recently, though, they have expanded their attacks to include all shipping.

At the same time, Hezbollah has increased its militant activity on Israel’s northern border by specifically targeting the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system that has proved so effective at protecting Israeli civilians.

All this could have a significant impact on the global economy just when it was showing signs of recovering from the twin blows of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A number of leading shipping companies have responded to the deteriorating security situation in the Red Sea by rerouting their ships around the Cape of Good Hope instead of risking their normal passage through the Suez Canal. Apart from adding a further two weeks to the shipping schedule, the disruption will inevitably result in higher costs that will be passed on to the consumer, which could worsen inflation.

So in effect, Iran – while claiming that it does not seek a direct confrontation – has declared war on the West by helping the Houthis to attack global shipping routes.

It is a challenge, moreover, that the West must address, rather than resorting to the equivocation that has so often defined its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Like Russia, Iran is a hostile state that will only be deterred if the Western powers demonstrate strength and resolve. Iran and its Houthi sidekicks are no match for the powerful armada of Western warships that have assembled in the Red Sea, as has been demonstrated by the ease with which Houthi missiles have been shot down.

Just as happened in the Strait of Hormuz in the 1980s, forcing Iran and its allies to back down is the only sure way to enable global shipping through the Red Sea to return to normal.

Source » telegraph