A Houthi helicopter attack on an Israel-linked ship in the Red Sea underscores the danger lurking along one of the world’s key shipping routes as the war between Israel and Hamas rages, as well as the rebels’ tactics mirroring those of their main sponsor, Iran.
While Tehran has denied aiding the Yemeni rebel group in Sunday’s attack, the targeted ship had passed a US-sanctioned Iranian cargo vessel suspected of serving as a forward spy base in the Red Sea before the attack. The rebels, dressed commando-style, with body armor and assault rifles, covered each other and moved in military formation before quickly taking control of the bridge of the Galaxy Leader.
While the footage from their body cameras serves as a propaganda tool to bolster their own position in Yemen amid some protests against their rule, it also signals the opening of a new maritime front in a region long focused on The Persian Gulf and its narrow mouth in the Strait of Hormuz. It also puts new pressure on commercial carriers traveling through these waters, threatens to increase insurance costs that will be passed on to consumers, and is likely to further strain the US Navy, which is trying to serve as a guarantor of security in the region.
“All of this indicates that these people have been trained by professional military personnel who may clearly be from Iran,” a US defense official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. “This looks like nothing we’ve seen before.”
However, it is not only the US and Israel that suspect Iranian involvement.
Risk intelligence firm RANE assessed the tactics used by the Houthis as reminiscent of those of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in seizing ships in the past, during years of tension over Tehran’s failed nuclear deal with world powers. Private intelligence firm Ambrey also described the operation as an “Iranian-style vessel seizure” that “gives the Houthis leverage in negotiations” much in the way Hamas took some 240 hostages in its October 7 attack on Israel .
“The incident showed a significant increase in the ability of the Houthis to disrupt commercial shipping,” Ambrey said. “In the past, the Houthis have only used sea mines, missiles and remote-controlled improvised explosive devices in the Red Sea.” The firm added: “The complexity of the operation suggests that Iranian involvement is highly likely.”
Galaxy Leader, linked to Israeli billionaire Abraham “Rami” Ungar, also passed the Iranian cargo ship Behshad before Sunday’s attack, according to satellite images first reported by Tanker Trackers.
“Behshad” has been located in the Red Sea since 2021 off the Eritrean Dahlak Archipelago. He arrived there after Iran took out Saviz, another suspected spy base in the Red Sea, which was damaged in an attack that analysts attributed to Israel as part of a wider shadow war in the region involving attacks on ships.
For its part, Iran yesterday denied having anything to do with the attacks. “These accusations are baseless and are the result of the complex situation that the Zionist regime is struggling with,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said. “We have repeatedly said that the resistance groups in the region represent their own countries and peoples and make decisions based on the interests of their own countries and peoples.”
However, Iran is one of the main sponsors of Hamas. The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed group, has been engaged in cross-border skirmishes with Israel for weeks. Iraqi militias claim to have carried out drone attacks on US bases there. Syria, another beneficiary of Iran-led policies, has also carried out sporadic attacks.
It is not yet clear how much control the Iranians have over the Houthis. However, the rebel group has made rapid progress in its ballistic missile and drone program despite being subject to a UN arms embargo for years. Analysts attributed this to Iranian military shipments, some of which had previously been seized by the US Navy and its allies.
The Houthis’ weapons sophistication has grown in other ways as well. This year, the Houthis were able to fly a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet over the capital Sanaa during a military parade, as well as a Northrop F-5 Tiger fighter jet during another parade. At one of the Houthis’ parades, Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters also flew in the sky – the same helicopter used in Sunday’s attack. A Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis launched airstrikes against Yemen’s air force early in the war, and the Houthis have yet to explain how they got those planes flying again.
The Houthis also shot down a US MQ-9 Reaper drone with a surface-to-air missile during the war between Israel and Hamas, and have also fired drones and missiles at Israel.
All this makes the Red Sea, which stretches from the Suez Canal in Egypt to the Bab el Mandeb Strait, separating East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula, increasingly dangerous for shipping. This narrow strait, which is about 29 km at its narrowest, is crucial for the transport of cargo and energy.
The US sent additional vessels into and through the Red Sea, including the aircraft carrier Dwight Eisenhower and its strike group. According to satellite images, the Eisenhower is now in the Gulf of Oman, meaning there are fewer US Navy assets in the Red Sea to deter possible new attacks.
And if the next attack results in casualties — especially American or Israeli citizens — it raises the risk of a wider war at sea.
“Significant Houthi interference in commercial shipping through the strait will almost certainly prompt US intervention because of the political and potentially economic consequences,” the New York-based Sufan Center warned.