Walid Phares, Mideast expert, author, and secretary general of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group (TPG), spoke to a February 4 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the implications of the recent ballistic missile attack launched against Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), by the Houthis, an Iranian-backed militia in Yemen.
According to Phares, the attack has "changed the strategic engagement game in the region." The "game" Phares has in mind is the escalating conflict between Iran and its proxies versus the Arab coalition comprised of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the UAE, and Egypt. The Iranian regime's aim in "destabiliz[ing]" the UAE by targeting Abu Dhabi is an attempt to "take the UAE out of the equation" in the confrontation. The conflict dates back to Ayatollah Khomeini's seizure of power during the 1979 Iranian revolution and the rise of the Shia mullahs. Khomeini's three goals targeting the West, the Jewish state, and the Sunni kingdom were "death to America, death to Israel, and ... death to the Saudi family or Saudi regime," respectively.
The Iranian regime's alliance with Syria's ruler Assad during the 1980s, as well as its gradual takeover of Lebanon via its proxy, Hezbollah, through the early 1990s, produced a regional bloc Phares called "the Iran arc in the Middle East." Only after the Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 did Iran further escalate its regional aggression by unleashing its militias in Iraq to form a "geographical plateau from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon." In the same year Iran's support of its proxies, the Houthi militia in north Yemen, increased pressure on the Saudis, to which the Saudi's responded by forming an Arab-Muslim coalition to contain the Houthis.
Washington's efforts to revive the Iran deal empowered the Houthis to launch missiles deep into Saudi Arabia.
Phares believes the May 2017 Riyadh Summit marked a change in the U.S. administration's approach to the regional conflict. At it, the Trump administration encouraged the Arab coalition to counter Iranian expansion, jihadism, and the Muslim Brotherhood by designating the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Under the Biden administration, however, priorities reverted to Obama's approach, which entailed Washington's placing the moribund Iran deal, a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), back into play, a move that weakened the Arab coalition. As a consequence of Washington's attempt to resuscitate the JCPOA, Iran was emboldened to escalate the conflict by empowering its Houthi proxy to launch missiles deep into KSA.
The UAE's military support of KSA triggered an Iranian threat to target the UAE's "cultural [and] economic centers." Because the UAE has been training the Southern Transitional Council (STC) "Giant Brigades" to aid KSA and "liberate" Yemen, the brigades, a.k.a. the Al Amaliqah forces, have successfully pushed the Houthis back into northern Yemen. In response to the Houthis' loss of territory, Iran ordered them to launch missiles at Abu Dhabi in an effort to break the coalition. The UAE responded in turn by sending Emirati jet fighters to bomb Yemen's missile launch sites.
Phares: the Abraham Accords expanded the pool of countries willing to "move in under the umbrella" of the agreement.
The Abraham Accords signed in Washington in 2020 expanded the pool of Gulf countries willing to "move in under the umbrella" of the regional agreement. The Accords, which generated "bilateral agreements" between Israel and some Gulf countries, affected strategic relationships regarding security arrangements. Phares has warned Washington about Iran's "long range missile threat" for close to a decade. Tehran has developed this weapon of choice to target its enemies "as far as Yemen or maybe beyond in the future." Phares said that although it is unknown how far the Iranians are willing to go in escalating regional conflicts, there is the possibility that the coalition against Iran will join forces with other regional allies such as Israel.
The Biden's administration's eagerness to sign a deal with the Iranians leaves its future actions in doubt. Phares said that to deter Iran, Washington must strategically support its Arab and Mideast allies. The Iranians are intent on establishing "a land bridge between Iran through Iraq," but Phares noted that they are "pragmatic." Even though the regime's long view is to advance its hegemony across the region with the goal of "crunching" its foes through proxies, Iran's immediate goal is to "consolidate themselves in Yemen."
Phares: American should "suspend the negotiations" with Iran, "continue with the sanctions, and stand by the UAE."
Phares recommended the Biden administration take three specific steps to thwart Iran's plans: 1) Stop the negotiations with Iran until the regime "will cease supporting the Houthis with ballistic missiles"; 2) Demand Iran release the American hostages "rotting in jails in Iran"; and 3) Negotiate the withdrawal and disarming of Iranian militias across the region. He emphasized that Washington should "suspend the negotiations, continue with the sanctions, and stand by the UAE."
Concluding his remarks, Phares said the U.S. will not bring Iran to heel unless Washington "establish[es] a balance of power" to give the U.S. an edge. He believes America's priority should be supporting "the Arab coalition ... Israel ... and the minorities in the region, and the civil societies." Not surprisingly given the Middle East's recent history, in surveying the regional landscape, Phares sees "news indicating further conflicts down the line."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.