Is there a blockade around Yemen? Who is blockading whom? Where will it lead?
Helene Cooper of the New York Times says the administration is claiming credit for turning back a flotilla of Iranian ships which may have been carrying arms for Tehran-backed rebels. “Pentagon officials on Friday credited the deployment of an American aircraft carrier group in waters off the coast of Yemen for a decision by Iran to turn back a naval convoy suspected of carrying weapons bound for Shiite rebels.” From this one might get the impression it is the Obama administration that is preventing the Iranians from using the sea to resupply its allies.
But a closer reading of the story suggests that USN’s true purpose was to keep the Iranians from challenging the Saudi blockade, which was already in place. ”Although it was unusual to dispatch such a large American naval force to the Arabian Sea on an interdiction and deterrence mission, Pentagon officials said the deployment — and Iran’s apparent response — had lowered tensions in the continuing regional proxy war between Tehran and Saudi Arabia.”
Far from delivering an ultimatum to the Iranians, the administration claims it never even tried to communicate with the Iranian flotilla.
Defense Department officials said there were no communications between the American and Iranian ships, and they could not say what type of cargo was being transported, although an arms shipment was suspected.
It was unclear whether the United States would have tried to board or stop the Iranian convoy if it had continued toward Yemen; such a move would have risked escalating the conflict in Yemen, and could have stymied fragile negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.
The Saudis themselves have claimed responsibility for blockading Yemen’s ports. But perhaps “blockade” is not entirely the right word for the situation. The Saudis are hanging onto the ports, defending against a Houthi advance from the interior.
The Saudi-led coalition that’s fighting against Shiite rebels in Yemen said it completed a blockade of the country’s ports and is ready to step up airstrikes. Bombing missions are seeking to stop the Shiite Houthis from moving forces between Yemen’s cities, Ahmed Asseri, a Saudi military officer, told reporters in Riyadh on Monday. Coalition aircraft and warships targeted the rebels as they advanced toward Aden, the southern port that’s the last stronghold of Saudi Arabia’s ally in Yemen, President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. Shipping routes to and from the ports are under the coalition’s control, Asseri said.
The Wall Street Journal emphasized this, saying “Saudi officials warned Iran that its sailors would try to search any ship that tried to dock in Yemen.” The American concerns were not quite coincident with the Saudis. While the Saudis were probably trying to prevent the Houthis from being resupplied, the principal American concern was that the Iranian ships were loaded with threats to ‘navigation’, that is to say, anti-ship weapons.
“What we’ve said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem,” Mr. Obama said on MSNBC this week. “And we’re not sending them obscure messages. We send them very direct messages about it.”
‘Threats to navigation’ is probably a code word for anti-ship missiles and mines that could be deployed in the Bab-el-Mandeb, “a strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.” The strait is exceedingly narrow and vulnerable to interdiction.
The Bab-el-Mandeb acts as a strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. In 2006, an estimated 3.3 million barrels (520,000 m3) of oil passed through the strait per day, out of a world total of about 43 million barrels per day (6,800,000 m3/d) moved by tankers.
The distance across is about 20 miles (30 km) from Ras Menheli in Yemen to Ras Siyyan in Djibouti. The island of Perim divides the strait into two channels, of which the eastern, known as the Bab Iskender (Alexander’s Strait), is 2 miles (3 km) wide and 16 fathoms (30 m) deep, while the western, or Dact-el-Mayun, has a width of about 16 miles (25 km) and a depth of 170 fathoms (310 m). Near the coast of Djibouti lies a group of smaller islands known as the “Seven Brothers”.
While Washington wants credit for turning back the Iranians, one of the things the administration does not want to take responsibility for is starving Yemen. Yet that is also an outcome of the Saudi control of the ports. An editorial from the same New York Times, places the blame for a blockade squarely on Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war was always a risky gamble. Now there’s evidence showing just how damaging four weeks of airstrikes have been: more than 1,000 civilians killed, more than 4,000 wounded, and 150,000 displaced. Meanwhile, the fighting and a Saudi-led blockade have deprived Yemenis of food, fuel, water and medicines, causing what a Red Cross official called a humanitarian catastrophe. Yemen has long been a weak state, and with each day it draws closer to collapse.”