Stalemate by US, Iranian navies off Yemen – but for how long?
Beirut - The unresolved conflict in Yemen raised tensions in international waters off the Arabian Peninsula amid claims that Iran dispatched a cargo fleet to ferry weapons to the Shia Houthi fighters controlling northern Yemen.
As an Iranian destroyer and other vessels headed to Yemeni waters, where a Saudi-led coalition is maintaining a naval blockade, the Pentagon announced the United States was also beefing up its presence in the Arabian Sea.
Although the scene appeared set for a confrontation on the high seas, the crisis dissipated almost as rapidly as it arose. Two days after US reinforcements were announced on April 21st, the flotilla of nine Iranian cargo ships was reported to be moving away from the Yemeni coast.
The outcome looked like vindication of the United State’s familiar minatory tactics — diplomatic speak for what its opponents might more readily describe as bullying. This time, however, neither Washington nor Tehran had any interest in a showdown over Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its regional allies have taken the lead in the anti- Houthi campaign.
By the time the Pentagon announced on April 21st that the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy had entered the Arabian Sea in response to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia was preparing its own announcement that it was suspending a month-long bombing campaign against the Houthis.
The suspension, which turned out to be temporary, was welcomed by both Washington and Tehran. The United States retrospectively backed the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis but officials expressed limited enthusiasm if not plain hostility towards an initiative launched unilaterally by Riyadh. US and other Western officials have questioned Saudi claims about the extent of Iranian support for the Houthi rebels and some are sceptical about Riyadh’s insistence the rebellion is part of a grand scheme by Tehran to dominate the entire region.
This caution was reflected in the Pentagon announcement of naval reinforcements. US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the additional warships had “a very clear mission to ensure that shipping lanes remain open, to ensure there’s freedom of navigation through those critical waterways and to help ensure maritime security”.
Warren did not refer to news reports that the Iranian cargo convoy might be trying to deliver weapons to the Houthis and said the Iranian vessels had so far demonstrated no threat. Tehran, like Washington, invariably explains its naval deployments in regional waters as part of measures to guarantee the security of international shipping. Both navies have indeed been involved in safeguarding regional waters, in part against the assaults of Somali pirates on merchant shipping.
A US destroyer even rescued an Iranian fishing boat from pirates in early 2012 and an Iranian warship returned the compliment a few months later by chasing away raiders who targeted a US-flagged ship.
Tehran and Washington have an interest in maintaining such symbolic harmony. Their wider strategic concern at the moment is in keeping up the momentum towards securing a final deal on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme. A naval confrontation over Yemen would scarcely contribute to that. The decision of the Obama administration formally to side with the Saudis over its Yemen bombing campaign may have been in part a gesture to appease Saudi concerns about a US shift in Iran’s favour on the nuclear issue.
In reality, Washington may be less concerned about the Houthis than in the prospect that the continued Yemen unrest will enhance the position of the local al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “Ironically, the most effective force against AQAP in Yemen has so far been the Houthis, and vice versa,” according to a current intelligence briefing from the New York-based Soufan Group consultancy.
The US administration’s interest now lies in avoiding a direct role in the Yemen conflict — least of all a naval confrontation with the Iranians — while pressing for a political settlement.
That continued to look doubtful this week as Saudi coalition air strikes continued despite the previous announcement of their suspension. “Operation Decisive Storm has not ended,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said April 26th, referring to the Saudi-led campaign. “There will be no deal with the Houthis whatsoever until they withdraw from areas under their control.”
While the stalemate persists, the US and Iranian fleets will be keeping a wary eye on each other in regional waters, but avoiding any move that might prompt an escalation.