For the third time in two weeks, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on Monday attacked the United Arab Emirates with ballistic missiles — this time during the first-ever visit by an Israeli president. On Wednesday, three drones claimed by a pro-Iran militia in Iraq targeted the country. Combined, these strikes mark a major escalation in Iran’s increasingly brazen campaign to attack the United States and its Middle Eastern partners. President Joe Biden urgently needs to realize that his yearlong strategy of accommodation and restraint toward Iran has failed, producing not the compromise and de-escalation he hoped for, but rather its polar opposite.
Both Monday’s ballistic missile attack and Wednesday’s drone attack were reportedly intercepted. A week ago, U.S.-operated Patriot air defense batteries destroyed two missiles that targeted a base in Abu Dhabi where 2,000 American troops are stationed. A Houthi strike on Jan. 17 was far larger, including both missiles and drones. An American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system intercepted at least two of the missiles — the system’s first recorded operational use — while several projectiles got through, resulting in three civilian deaths.
The escalation against the UAE is not an isolated event. Militias financed and armed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, have dramatically escalated their attacks across the region over the last year. According to data collected by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, in the first year of Biden’s presidency, Iran’s regional proxies fired more than 600 projectiles at U.S. personnel and partner nations. That compares to less than 250 fired in 2020, President Donald Trump’s last year in office.
If anything, the pace is only accelerating in 2022 with over 85 attacks launched in the first weeks of the new year. Deterrence looks to be in freefall.
JINSA’s data also highlights the growing threat posed by IRGC-supplied drones. In 2020, drones accounted for less than 20% of the munitions Iran-backed groups fired at the United States and its friends in Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. In 2021, that figure skyrocketed to 65%, including high-risk attacks against a commercial ship in the Arabian Sea, killing two; against a U.S. special forces base in Tanf, Syria; and in an assassination attempt against Iraq’s prime minister.
If the attacks continue against the UAE, the potential for disaster is real. An estimated 65,000 U.S. citizens live there, including thousands of U.S. troops. Moreover, the Emirates are one of the world economy’s most important transit, energy and financial hubs. Several well-placed drones or missiles striking the heart of Dubai’s commercial center would have global reverberations.
The United States should urgently take the following steps to reestablish some measure of deterrence against Iran and bolster regional defenses:
- Through reliable diplomatic channels, send Iran a message that it will be held directly accountable for further attacks on U.S. interests in the region. At the same time, the United States, alongside the UAE and other capable partners, should prepare a range of cyber, covert and military steps, both deniable and overt, to punish Iran for further escalations.
- Fulfill one of the UAE’s top requests by redesignating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, a Trump-era action that Biden reversed as one of his first acts as president.
- Provide the UAE with whatever additional air defense capabilities the United States can spare, particularly to detect and counter low-flying drones using systems already successfully deployed by U.S. forces in Iraq.
- Work to bring Israel’s unparalleled air defense experience and capabilities to the UAE. No country in the world, including the United States, has succeeded more than Israel in building layered missile defenses against the full spectrum of Iranian-supplied projectiles. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ordered his security establishment to provide “any assistance” of interest to the UAE. Washington should use its position as the main security partner of both countries to expedite that process and bring two of its best regional friends even closer together.
- Provide additional precision-guided munitions and intelligence to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia for the narrow mission of more effectively targeting Houthi missile- and drone-launch sites as well as production facilities.
These actions are not easy or without downsides. But none would be as hard as responding to a catastrophic Houthi success that takes out a floor or two of Dubai’s Burj Al Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Unfortunately, that is the course on which we now appear headed.
The lesson is clear: Undue restraint in the face of aggression has been dangerously provocative and is becoming evermore so. It’s time for Biden to change course.
John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and the former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Ari Cicurel is a senior policy analyst at JINSA.