Cat and mouse in the Red Sea

An Iranian “armada” is heading towards Yemen, according to a report last Friday. A couple of days later, the American aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt set sail from the Gulf, also heading in the direction of Yemen. Fox News is in no doubt about what this means; a headline on its website says “US aircraft carrier sent to block Iranian shipments to Yemen”. But let’s look a little closer.

What we know about the Iranian “armada” comes mainly from the American political website, The Hill. Citing two US defence officials, it says Iran is sending seven to nine ships, “some with weapons”, “toward Yemen” in a “potential attempt” to “re-supply” the Houthis.

Conceivably some of the vessels are warships, though the report doesn’t actually say so. It’s also unclear whether “some with weapons” means the ships are armed or carrying weapons as cargo. Considering the risks of piracy in the area, the former would not be surprising.

The ships’ destination “toward” Yemen rather than “to” Yemen also seems rather vague and talk of them possibly “re-supplying” the Houthis implies that Iran has been supplying them before – which is not established fact.

One curious feature of the “armada” affair, according to The Hill’s report, is that the Iranians seem to have made sure the US knew it was happening:

“What's unusual about the new deployment ... is that the Iranians are not trying to conceal it, officials said. Instead, they appear to be trying to 'communicate it’ to the US and its allies in the Gulf.”

The Hill’s report also notes: “Iran sent a destroyer and another vessel to waters near Yemen last week but said it was part of a routine counter-piracy mission.”

Although the dispatch of USS Theodore Roosevelt looks like a response to the Iranian move, its purpose is also unclear – as is the ship’s precise destination. Reports say, rather vaguely, that it’s heading for the Arabian Sea.

The US already has nine warships in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden which are reported to be “patrolling near strategic shipping lanes”. At present, however, the US is not formally participating in the naval blockade of Yemen, which is being led by the Saudis, but is involved in a more general way. A US military spokesman quoted by The Hill said:

“We will continue to vigilantly defend freedom of navigation and to conduct consensual searches in an effort to ensure that drugs, human trafficking, weapons trafficking and other contraband are limited.”

It was apparently as part of that process that the US Navy “consensually” boarded a Panamanian-registered ship in the Red Sea on April 1 which was suspected of illegally carrying arms for the Houthis – but none were found.

There are differing opinions in the US over whether Iran is actually supplying the Houthis with significant quantities of weapons. 

On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest, accused Iran of “destablising activities” and said: "We have seen evidence that the Iranians are supplying weapons and other armed support to the Houthis” – though no firm evidence has yet been made public (see previous blog posts, here and here).

In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said Iran “has continued to provide financial support, weapons, and intelligence to the Houthis” but “Iran does not control the Houthis”.

Iran’s apparent lack of control over the Houthis was illustrated by a Huffington Post report yesterday in which US officials said Iran tried to discourage the Houthis from taking over the Yemeni capital last September – but had been ignored. The report continued:

“The newly disclosed information casts further doubt on claims that the rebels are a proxy group fighting on behalf of Iran, suggesting that the link between Iran and the Yemeni Shiite group may not be as strong as congressional hawks and foreign powers urging US intervention in Yemen have asserted.

“US lawmakers and Gulf state leaders who are sceptical of the nuclear negotiations with Iran have pointed to the Houthis' rise to power in Yemen as more evidence of Iran's unhelpful expansionary objectives in the region. But the news that Iran actually opposed the takeover paints a more complicated picture. 

“As the regime in Tehran has signalled, the Iranians are not unhappy to see their Gulf rivals embroiled in conflict in their neighbourhood, but their advice against seizing Sanaa suggests that controlling Yemen is at best a secondary priority for Iran, far behind relief from sanctions that could come with a successful nuclear pact.

“On the other hand, the revelation that the Houthis directly disobeyed Iran gives credibility to the White House's argument that Iran is not directing the rebels, who follow a different branch of Shiite Islam than Iran's leaders and are believed to care more about corruption and the distribution of power in Yemen than the spread of Shiite influence across the Middle East.”

Despite repeated claims that Iran is arming the Houthis, the US Navy has not sought to board any Iranian ships since the air campaign began and, according to the Los Angeles Times, current practice is that “the US Navy does not stop and board other ships under normal circumstances unless the other captain agrees”.

The LA Times report does however suggest that the aircraft carrier’s arrival will increase the Americans’ ability to monitor possible arms smuggling: 

Christopher Harmer, a Middle East analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a public policy group in Washington, said sending the carrier Roosevelt greatly expands the Pentagon’s ability to watch for illegal activities.

“The Navy is sending a message to Iran and the Houthis: ‘We might not be ready to start jumping your ships today, but we know what you’re up to,’” he said.

“But I’d be surprised if this has any effect at all,” he added. “The Iranians are used to the US Navy being in their backyard.”

Meanwhile, the Iranians seem to be almost inviting the US to search their little “armada” – which suggests that whatever game they are playing may be more political than military.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 21 April 2015