If you have been paying attention to the news recently, you may have noticed a low-key story emerge over the past few days. Earlier this week Iran sent a flotilla of nine ships towards Yemen, a nation that is currently embroiled in a civil war. Observers were worried that the flotilla, composed of cargo ships, was carrying weapons destined for the Houthi rebels currently fighting in Yemen. On Tuesday, the U.S. announced that the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and an additional cruiser would be deployed to the Gulf of Aden, for a total of nine US Navy ships in the region. Many in the media and elsewhere saw this U.S. Navy deployment as a direct response to the approaching Iranian convoy. President Obama made remarks that seemed to confirm the deployment was related to the Iranian flotilla.
“What we’ve said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem, and we’re not sending them obscure messages, we send them very direct messages about it,” he said.
The U.S. deployment seemed to be the “direct message” that President Obama was describing. However, spokespersons from the Pentagon disputed the claim that the U.S. ships were sent to disrupt the Iranian flotilla. Officials insisted that the deployment was related mostly to the ongoing war in Yemen, and the recent Saudi-led intervention in the conflict.
As of early Thursday afternoon, the Iranian flotilla appears to have diverted course away from Yemen, a sign that perhaps the Iranians have decided not to risk a confrontation. Now that the potential for a standoff had been greatly decreased, one is left to wonder why the Iranians had sent the convoy in the first place. The flotilla had no escort and was unarmed, although some reports say that the Iranians had one destroyer nearby. The convoy itself had no offensive capability. This, combined with the fact that all ships in the convoy were cargo ships leads, credence to the theory it was an attempt to resupply the Houthis. While no one knows for sure why the Iranians chose to send a convoy, and why they chose now to do it, we can make some guesses as to what the Iranians were trying to do.
As previously mentioned, Saudi Arabia had recently intervened in the war in Yemen, primarily through airstrikes in concert with other nations. While Saudi Arabia supports the Yemeni government, Iran has been consistently supporting the Houthis since last year. Perhaps the convoy was an attempt to show Iran’s presence in the region and avoid the image of a weak Iran that cannot support its allies. Sending warships could have provoked an escalated response and possibly sent forward too harsh a message, so instead, Iran opted to send cargo ships. Their intent probably was to show Saudi Arabia that they will support the rebels despite the intervention while simultaneously avoiding a confrontation with Washington that could jeopardize the recent nuclear deal.
Iran could have, or maybe was planning too, borrow a page from Putin’s playbook. Putin sent multiple “humanitarian convoys” into Ukraine as fighting broke out. These trucks were subject to search by Ukrainian authorities. Some of these trucks actually carried aid. Others were mysteriously empty, with no indication of whatever contents were inside. In a similar way, Iran could have easily claimed that said convoy was a purely humanitarian venture, and indeed, they may have been planning to do so once the convoy got close to Yemen. U.S. statements, probably conveyed in private, but resembling President Obama’s statement about “direct messages,” may have changed their minds. It appears that their bluff was up before it even begun.
All this could be assuming too much, but it seems pointless for Iran to send a arms convoy to Yemen when it know full well that there is a high chance that someone, probably America, will act to halt the convoy. It seems like part of the story is missing here. Iran, unlike Putin, didn’t frame their attempt to funnel arms in the right way. Next time they should paint their ships white, place giant red crosses on side, then invite the media on board to cover the humanitarian voyage to a war torn country, all while they have arms hidden deep in the bellies of the ships.