The interesting detail in the deployment of an Iranian humanitarian vessel to Yemen is not in its contents, but, rather, in how the ship planned to deliver the cargo – by sailing right in and offloading it.
While this doubtlessly would not play well in the mind of the young Saudi Minister of Defense, Mohammad bin Salman, who has been overseeing Riyadh’s naval and air blockade of Yemen since the end of March, it would have hardly been surprising given that Iran made a similar attempt last month, when it sailed a blockade-busting flotilla west through the Gulf of Aden.
While there has been a lot of bluster regarding the Saudi-Iranian ‘proxy war’ unfolding in Yemen, many analysts agree that the real reason for the conflict is not sectarian differences between regional powers, but tribal politics in the impoverished nation of Yemen. Saudi involvement, in turn, has roots in ensuring everything is in order in its turf to the south.
In this context, the recent collision course that Iran has twice set with the Saudi naval blockade is better regarded as a test of the boundaries of Saudi – and, by extension, American – power and resolve. These challenges are framed against the backdrop of Iran’s improving fortunes in the region, facilitated not least of all by a potential nuclear agreement with the United States.
Humanitarian missions serve dual purpose of strategy and propaganda
Not all challenges to Saudi suzerainty have been under the auspices of arming the Houthis. In the case of the Shahed vessel, the Iranians claimed from the start that the ship carried humanitarian cargo and then, after what turned out to be minor protests, agreed to dock in Djibouti, allowing UN inspectors on board and transferring its shipment for final delivery to the World Food Program.
While not breaking the Saudi blockade in the strictest sense, Iran’s delivery of humanitarian goods certainly undermined it, boisterously declaring for 90% of the trip that it intended to flout the blockade, only to skirt it on a technicality for the final 10% of the voyage.
Viewed in this light, the presence of the two-ship Iranian military escort for the Shahed seems less designed to protect cargo and more to antagonize Saudi Arabia’s leaders.
Nor is the Shahed the only attempt to undermine Saudi authority by means of humanitarian mission. After the failed flotilla last month (whether it was truly a failure is examined below), an Iranian plane allegedly carrying doctors and medicines tried landing in rebel-held Sana’a. The plane was intercepted by Saudi F-15s, and when the plane wouldn’t divert, the Saudis blew up the runway.
The same goes for the nine-ship flotilla that attempted to run the blockade in April, only to turn back after being shadowed by the US capital ship USS Theodore Roosevelt and its companion, the USS Normandy.
A risky approach
While Iranian leaders might have been able to deliver larger amounts of arms via ships, other means might have meant less attention and more success. The Sudan corridor is a well-known route for ferrying arms from Iran to Hamas in Gaza. Could Sudan not have been mobilized to quietly ferry arms across the Red Sea?
Also worth considering are the ships that plied their way between Iran and Yemen in the early part of the year.
As uncovered by the Financial Times, at least four ships made the trip after the Houthis took Sana’a, making significant attempts to disguise themselves in the process.
That the more recent Iranian attempts to get to Yemen took no similar precautions — in fact, they’re almost amateurish by comparison — suggests that supporting the Houthis for their own sake wasn’t the Iranians’ primary objective.
What’s certain is that, in the run-up to a potential nuclear agreement, Iran is seeing its position in the region improve. So it may be that, given the slow deterioration of the Saudi-US alliance, Iran wants to see how far the American defensive umbrella extends.
It’s also possible that Iran simply wants to project an image of itself as strong, stalwart and activist in the run-up to final nuclear negotiations. But the accepted wisdom that it was seeking to re-arm Yemeni rebels on ideological grounds is likely just a tactical smokescreen as Iran probes the limits of its adversary’s power and resolve.