Yemen, and the Iranian threat that wasn't

Iranian frigate Alvand, built by Britain for the Shah 48 years ago, seen passing through the Suez Canal in 2011

Four weeks ago there was a flurry of media excitement over Iranian warships that were supposedly about to confront the US Navy off the coast of Yemen. In case you are wondering how the battle went, it didn't happen and was never likely to happen.

On October 13, Fox News reported:

"Iran deployed two warships off Yemen threatening to further escalate tensions after the US fired Tomahawk cruise missiles destroying three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory, a US official confirmed to Fox News on Thursday."

Other news reports made a similar connection between events in the Red Sea and the dispatch of Iranian warships when in fact there was none. The vessels, grandly described as a "flotilla", had set sail from Iran on October 5, on a pre-planned route, several days before skirmishes broke out between the Americans and the Houthis in the Red Sea, and the Red Sea was not their destination.

One effect of this hyped-up story was to divert attention from Saudi Arabia's conduct of the war in Yemen and serve as a reminder that in bombing Yemenis the Saudis claim to be protecting the world from Iran.

On October 8 Saudi warplanes had launched multiple strikes against a funeral in Yemen, killing at least 140 people. The attack, which the Saudis blamed on false intelligence and disobedience within the military, caused embarrassment to the American and British governments who supply the Saudis with most of their weapons, prompting renewed calls for a suspension of arms sales.

Fortunately for the Americans and British, however, the reported threat from Iran's navy came to their rescue. 

The Iranian "flotilla" – consisting of a single 48-year-old frigate (British built) and its supply vessel – was due to carry out anti-piracy operations off the southern coast of Yemen then head down the eastern coast of Africa to make a port call in Tanzania. Weather permitting, it would continue south around the Cape of Good Hope and into the southern Atlantic. The Atlantic portion of this trip had been reported by Iranian media in September, well before last month's escalation in the Red Sea. 

There was no suggestion from the Iranians that the vessels would enter the Red Sea, and they appear to have stuck to the announced route. 

On October 17, the Iranian Press TV reported that they had foiled several pirate attacks:

Gulf of Aden pirates, who mainly come from Somali coasts, attacked an Iranian merchant ship in a bid to highjack it but they were forced to flee after a heavy exchange of fire by the Iranian fleet.

The pirates also conducted two attacks on another Iranian merchant ship. They initially attacked the vessel with eight speedboats 46 miles south of the Yemeni city of Aden and later with 13 well-equipped boats 55 miles south of the port city.

However, the two attacks were repelled by the Iranian naval forces and the pirates were forced to retreat when they came under heavy fire.

Iran has been carrying out anti-piracy patrols in the area for about eight years.

On October 29 the naval vessels docked in Dar es Salaam "in line with the consolidation of the cordial relations and diplomatic ties between Iran and Tanzania", where they spent three days.

On November 7, Press TV said the flotilla was "close to Mozambique's maritime border" and heading towards South Africa.

One small irony in this story is that the frigate making the voyage, the Alvand, was built in Britain for the Shah. British government ministers might reflect on that as they attempt to boost arms sales to the Gulf. Weaponry sold to friendly dictators can often outlast the dictators and end up in unexpected hands.