Seven to nine Iranian ships are headed for Yemen, according to US military officials. The Pentagon is worried that the ships may dock at a port controlled by Houthi rebels in order to resupply them.
Saudi ships are patrolling off the coast, looking to impose a blockade on supplies to the rebels Obviously, a dangerous situation may develop if Iran tries to run the blockade.
Officials fear the move could lead to a showdown with the U.S. or other members of a Saudi-led coalition, which is enforcing a naval blockade of Yemen and is conducting its fourth week of airstrikes against the Houthis.
Iran sent a destroyer and another vessel to waters near Yemen last week but said it was part of a routine counter-piracy mission.
What’s unusual about the new deployment, which set out this week, is that the Iranians are not trying to conceal it, officials said. Instead, they appear to be trying to “communicate it” to the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf.
It is not clear what will happen as the convoy comes closer to Yemen. Saudi Arabia has deployed ships around Yemen to enforce the blockade, as has Egypt. An official said the ship convoy could try to land at a port in Aden, which the Houthis have taken over.
Although the U.S. is assisting with the Saudi-led air campaign, it is not participating in the naval blockade of Yemen, said U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder.
However, the U.S. Navy is in the region and has already “consensually boarded” one Panamanian-flagged ship in the Red Sea on April 1 on the suspicion it was illegally carrying arms for the Houthis.
None were found, but the move raised alarm bells in Washington over an increasingly active U.S. military role in the conflict. The Pentagon indicated this week that more boardings could occur.
“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,” Army Col. Steve Warren said on Monday.
Officials fear a naval confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia could escalate what has become a proxy war between the two countries.
I don’t think either the Saudis or the Iranians want to go to war. It doesn’t make sense for Iran to negotiate a nuclear deal with the west that will lift sanctions and then start a war that’s sure to bring a response from the US. Not only that, but Iran’s military would be overwhelmed by the Arab army assembled by Saudi Arabia. They may be fanatics in Tehran but they’re not stupid.
From the Saudi point of view, there are several countries in their coalition with large Shia minorities who might cause trouble if there’s a war with Iran. And while the war in Yemen is seen as an effort to help the recognized government, a war with Iran would be seen as a sectarian conflict that might blow up the entire Middle East.
Still, you can have the best of intentions not to go to war and one will start anyway. That’s the nature of confrontation and all it takes is one mistake by one Iranian or Saudi ship’s captain for the shooting to begin.
So why is Iran risking war?
U.S. officials say they are unsure why Iran is making the brazen move. One theory they have floated is that the Saudi-led coalition has effectively blockaded any air routes into Yemen and there are no other ways to resupply the Houthis.
Another theory is that Iran is trying to distract the coalition from another ship it has tried hard to conceal that is currently docked at Oman — a potential land route for smuggling arms into Yemen.
Yet another theory is that Iran wants to force a confrontation with Saudi Arabia that it believes it will win, because Iran views the Saudi military as weak and suspects the U.S. lacks the willpower to support its Gulf ally.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last week on Twitter taunted Saudi Arabia, calling its military puny and smaller than Israel’s. He also said the air campaign was tantamount to genocide of innocent Yemeni civilians and that the U.S. would also fail in Yemen.
The Saudi military may be weak, but they have assembled a 40,000 man Arab army. And Egypt, with the largest military in the region, has said they would contribute troops if called upon. Pakistan has also said they would consider sending troops if Saudi Arabia was threatened.
A confrontation between Iran and the Saudis would quickly escalate. Let’s hope there aren’t any nervous trigger fingers on any of the ships from either side.