On February 19, the Houthi militia in Yemen fired a barrage of missiles at cargo vessels and U.S. warships in the Red Sea, forcing the crew of a British-owned freighter to abandon ship. The same day, nearby American forces shot down a dozen drones, along with a cruise missile, and hit a rocket launcher—all belonging to the Houthis.

Meanwhile, the Houthis have been rising in prominence within a network of Middle Eastern militant groups that calls itself the Axis of Resistance—in reference to their opposition against the United States, Israel, and their regional allies, soon to be joined in the Red Sea by a European Union flotilla.

The Axis includes the Houthis in Yemen, several militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and, not least, Hamas. What do these groups have in common? They’re all armed and funded by Iran.

And yet Iran’s connections to the Hamas attacks on October 7 that triggered the war in Gaza remain murky. It’s unclear how much Iran’s leadership knew about them ahead of time. After Iranian proxy fighters in Iraq launched a drone strike in Jordan on January 28, killing three U.S. soldiers, Tehran sent senior officials to order the proxies to stop. And while Iran keeps supplying its confederates in the region with missiles, drones, and intelligence tools to escalate the conflict in Gaza, it also continues calling for a ceasefire.

How do all these seemingly contradictory moves make sense?

Vali Nasr is a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, and the author of seven books on the Middle East and Islam. As Nasr sees it, Iran is anxious for a ceasefire to stop Israel from damaging Hamas any further—and Iran’s proxy attacks on Israel and its allies are intended as pressure to achieve that end.

But overall, the Islamic Republic is emboldened, seeing itself as gaining power and status from the circumstances of the war. Not only has the conflict shown Israel to be less secure than it long seemed, but global public opinion has considerably turned against Israel and the U.S., while relations between their leaders have cooled. Across the region and around the world, Nasr says, the war has returned the Palestinian issue to the public agenda, in ways that will demand significant Western attention and investment for years. Which the Iranian regime believes will mean less capacity to confront it—and more of a need to work with it—if the U.S. and its allies hope to calm the Middle East.

Michael Bluhm: How have Iran and its proxies responded to the war in Gaza?


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