Saudi reaction to Bab el Mandeb attack draws attention to Iranian, Houthi threats

Experts saw Saudi Arabia as cautioning the international community against the risks posed by Iran and its Houthi proxies.
Sunday 29/07/2018
A general view of Perim Island in Bab el Mandeb. (Reuters)
Strategic security. A general view of Perim Island in Bab el Mandeb. (Reuters)

LONDON - The pro-Iran Houthi militia carried through with threats to disrupt maritime navigation in the Red Sea with attacks on two very large Saudi crude carriers. The July 25 attack, in which one of the two vessels was slightly damaged, seemed an attempt to increase tension in the region but only to a certain point.

The Iranians and their proxies know that more serious incidents could draw a stronger international reaction than they could manage. The US Navy 5th Fleet has said in the past it would prevent Iranian attempts at disrupting traffic in the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia suspended its shipments through the Bab el Mandeb Strait but crude supplies elsewhere have not been in jeopardy.

“All [Saudi] oil shipments through Bab el Mandeb Strait have been suspended temporarily until… maritime transit through the area is safe,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said.

Experts said Riyadh was trying to send a strong message concerning the risks posed by Iran and its Houthi proxies in Yemen or near the Saudi border.

Freedom of navigation in the Red Sea was at the core of threats to the United States by Iranian al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani

“The Red Sea, which was secure, is no longer secure with the American presence,” Soleimani said the day after the attacks on the tankers. “[US President Donald] Trump should know we are a nation of martyrdom and that we await him.”

The Houthis had threatened to hinder traffic through Bab el Mandeb into the Red Sea. The Iranians warned they could block shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

Despite the threats and provocations, the Iranians admit the bluster does not mean they think they can afford a war with the United States. “This is a war of words. Neither side wants a military confrontation,” an unidentified senior Iranian official conceded to Reuters.

Although they seem to be taking turns acknowledging Trump’s hostile tweets, Iranian leaders are likely to have taken notice of the United States’ apparent designs on regime change in Tehran.

Building on protests in Iran for improved economic conditions, Washington’s anti-Iranian narrative included alleging corruption by Iranian leaders, a tack likely to hit a nerve with Tehran’s rulers.

“The Iranian economy is going great but only if you’re a politically connected member of the elite,” declared US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 22 in a speech to Iranian-Americans in California.

Pompeo mentioned an alleged $95 billion slush fund at the control of the Iranian supreme leader and the more than 60 bank accounts supposedly held by a prominent Iranian politician. He spoke of a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander nicknamed the “billionaire general.”

Pompeo described Iran’s clerical establishment as “hypocritical holy men” who “devised all kinds of crooked schemes to become some of the wealthiest men on Earth.”

“The level of corruption and wealth among Iranian leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government,” he said.

Pompeo’s focus on alleged corrupt practices of Iran’s leaders was meant to make life difficult for Iran’s regime at a time of unrest.

The Saudi Bab el Mandeb decision highlights the rejection by Riyadh of Iran’s role in supplying weapons the Houthis are using in Yemen as well as the missiles fired at Saudi Arabia.

Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said the need to ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea gives credence to the coalition’s battle for Hodeidah port in Yemen.

“The only way forward is to get Hodeidah. What we are planning to do is give diplomacy every possible chance to secure that,” he said on July 26.

He said the effect of the Houthis’ attack on the Saudi tankers was “much wider than the region.”

Some experts said the Saudi-led coalition could be trying to get the attention of international powers.

“A spike in oil prices… may be short-lived, but the impact on Yemen’s forgotten war is likely to put the devastating conflict on the front burner,” Middle East expert James Dorsey told Agence France-Presse.

“The Red Sea is a very important shipping lane. If there is a major disruption, European powers, Egypt and the United States would all have reason to intervene,” Ellen Wald, author of “Saudi Inc.,” wrote in Forbes magazine.