Are we headed back toward another naval showdown in the Persian Gulf? Just as a ceasefire was settling over Yemen (however unevenly) and the Iranians had released the Maersk Tigris, Tehran has dispatched another ship full of “aid” to Yemen—and declared it will use its navy to protect it. The Associated Press reports:
Iran says the ship, which departed Monday, is carrying food, medicine, tents and blankets, as well as reporters, rescue workers and peace activists. It says the ship is expected to arrive at Yemen’s port city of Hodeida next week.
Iran’s navy said Tuesday it will protect the ship, and on Wednesday Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran would not permit any country involved in the Yemen war to inspect its cargo.
The Saudis have been adamant that they will not allow Iran to reinforce the Houthis in Yemen; while the U.S. has not been as explicit, the last time Iran dispatched a flotilla to Yemen, Washington deployed the USS Theodore Roosevelt to the Persian Gulf. That convoy turned back.
This time, not only is the freighter to be escorted by warships, but everyone has turned up the rhetoric. Iran’s deputy chief of staff “bluntly declare[d] that the self-restraint of Islamic Republic of Iran is not limitless” and said any confrontation would “spark a fire”, while the Saudi military insisted they would not let the ship land. The Pentagon for its part warned the Iranians against “planning some sort of stunt.” The USS Theodore Roosevelt is still in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, an Iranian airline, Mahan, has managed to secure 9 modern Airbus planes in defiance of sanctions through an Iraqi shell company. Experts fear that these, too, will be used to ferry arms to Yemeni rebels. Yet, in what has to win the macho quote of the week contest, the head of Mahan stated, “is really baseless to say Mahan buys modern planes to carry weapons as if there is shortage of planes in Iran for such purposes.”
So if Iran really is intent on ferrying arms to the Houthis, it could present the Saudis, Americans, et al. with an unsavory choice: either shoot down unarmed planes, or tangle with warships. Is it just us, or does it seem like the window for treating just the immediate symptoms of Iran’s regional aggrandizement is getting narrower?