Iran Allies Escalate Attacks Despite Joe Biden Diplomacy, Sanctions

Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched another attack against Saudi Arabia early on Thursday. They struck an oil processing facility near the Red Sea city of Jeddah, despite repeated U.S. appeals for an end to such operations.

Houthi spokesperson Yahya Saree said on Twitter that the group had hit a Saudi state-owned Aramco facility in Jeddah using a Quds-2 missile. Saree posted a satellite image that appeared to be of Aramco's North Jeddah Bulk Plant, where the company stores oil products in tanks. This was the same facility that came under Houthi attack in November.

The Houthis—officially called Ansarallah—also said they attacked an airbase in Saudi Arabia's southwest using a drone. The official Saudi Press agency tweeted that the kingdom intercepted a "ballistic missile fired by the terrorist Houthi militia" towards Jazan on the Red Sea coast close to the border with Yemen.

The Houthis, who are armed and supported by Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran, are intensifying cross-border attacks as President Joe Biden tries to find a diplomatic solution to the long-running war and the humanitarian crisis it has spawned.

Saudi Arabia has been fighting the Houthis on behalf of the deposed Yemeni government since 2015. The Saudi-led coalition has been receiving weapons, logistics and intelligence support from the U.S. for the war. But Biden said last month he would end all American backing for the conflict; part of his promised re-evaluation of ties with the authoritarian Saudi royal family.

The attack came soon after the emergence of reports suggesting that senior U.S. officials had met with Houthi leaders as part of their efforts to end the war. Reuters reported that U.S. Yemen envoy Timothy Lenderking met with the chief Houthi negotiator Mohammed Abdusalam in the Omani capital Muscat on February 26.

The Biden administration reversed the Houthi terrorist designation put in place by former President Donald Trump in his last days in office. Aid groups warned that the decision would have made negotiations more difficult and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where millions are at risk of starvation.

But Biden's diplomatic push also included new sanctions against Houthi leaders accused of overseeing attacks on Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, the State Department said the U.S. "has made clear our commitment to promoting accountability for Ansarallah's malign and aggressive actions, which include exacerbating conflict in Yemen."

The war in Yemen plays into the wider regional contest between Iran and the U.S. and its allies. Biden came to office planning to end the war in Yemen and stabilize relations with Tehran, with the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal at the heart of his strategy.

Both the Biden administration and Tehran have said they are committed to returning to compliance with the accord, though are stuck in a standoff over which side makes the first move. Iran wants Biden to lift Trump-era sanctions before it scales back its nuclear program, but the White House says it will not give any sanctions relief until Iran complies fully with the JCPOA.

Meanwhile, Iran-aligned Iraqi militias are maintaining a drumbeat of attacks on American and allied interests in Iraq, where Tehran has spent decades cultivating massive influence over the war-torn nation.

In the past month, militants have launched rockets at American forces at the Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Ain Al Asad airbase in western Iraq. One civilian contractor was killed in the Erbil attack, with several Americans wounded. One American civilian contractor died of a heart attack during the Ain Al Asad attack this week.

The Biden administration is juggling its goal to revive the JCPOA with the need to deter further attacks on American troops and U.S. allies in the region.

The Erbil attack prompted a U.S. airstrike on Iran-allied Iraqi militia groups in Syria, in what the Pentagon said was designed to stop subsequent tit-for-tat operations. But this week's rocket barrage on Ain Al Asad suggests the militias are not yet willing to back down.

Meanwhile, Iran is also embroiled in low-intensity conflict with Israel, which routinely launches airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria seeking to roll back Tehran's influence in the splintered nation.

This week, Israel blamed Iran for an attack on an Israeli-owned vessel in the Gulf of Oman, a vital strategic waterway where Tehran has previously harassed and attacked shipping to put pressure on the U.S. and its allies.

America's regional allies are largely united in opposition to the JCPOA, and observers have suggested that nations like Israel might take unilateral action to undermine the deal even as Biden seeks to revive it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month that his country would "do everything so [Iran is not] armed with nuclear weapons," adding it would act "with or without an agreement" if required.

Houthi supporters pictured in Sanaa Yemen
Yemen's Houthi supporters take part in a gathering to donate for fighters on February 4, 2021 in Sana'a, Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images/Getty