Yemen Conflict is Raising the Regional Stakes

Map of Yemen Image Source: Central Intelligence Agency

Map of Yemen
Image Source: Central Intelligence Agency

Sana’a, Yemen (NEO) – Back in early April the Iranian government sent its destroyer to the Red Sea to patrol the Yemeni coast. Iranian Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said then that the ships would play an important role in the ongoing anti-piracy campaign, aimed at “guarding sea routes in the region, to ensure a safe passage of vessels”. Naturally this step was followed by widespread hysteria among western media outlets that were quick to conclude that it was but another episode in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, since the latter is carrying out air strikes in Yemen and delivering weapons to pro-government forces fighting against Shia rebels – the Houthis, along with forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. What those outlets forgot to report was that a handful of warships from other nations were stationed in the area, including Russian and Chinese vessels, but their presence near Yemeni shores didn’t provoke such hysteria.

In the same period of time, according to a U.S. Navy statement: “Theodore Roosevelt and Normandy have joined other U.S. forces conducting maritime security operations in the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and the Southern Red Sea.” This move has increased the number of US Navy ships stationed in the Gulf of Aden up to seven vessels, including destroyers and missile cruisers. Those ships have enough marines on aboard to overtake almost any foreign ship.

The official excuse for sending even more forces into the region is the “unstable situation in Yemen.” At the same time Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, denied reports that these ships were sent to intercept incoming Iranian convoys which, according to Washington, are shipping weapons to the Houthis. Tehran, in its turn, ignored these accusations, but confirmed that Iranian ships were present in the region to assist other forces in the fight against piracy. Meanwhile, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which can still be safely called a US ally, has already introduced a naval blockade of Yemen, while continuing to carry out air strikes against the country.

On May 11 an Iranian ship carrying humanitarian aid, rescue teams and anti-war activists from the US, Europe and Germany left the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas determined to reach the Yemeni port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea, which is now controlled by the Houthis. Its departure was followed by a threatening statement that Iran would start a war against any state that dares to attack Iraninan vessels carrying humanitarian aid for Yemen. This statement was made Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri who stressed that he is to “clearly announce that the self-restraint of the Islamic Republic of Iran has its limits,” and that by such an attack “they will start a fire which they cannot put out.”

Earlier it was reported that the Iran-flagged Shahed cargo ship was accompanied on its trip by Iranian warships, including destroyers. Tehran underlined that there is no weapons aboard this ship, only humanitarian aid. In turn, the United States urged Iran to direct the ship to Djibouti to allow this aid to be distributed by the UN mission. It should be noted that the Iranian Red Crescent has been trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Yemen by sea and air for quite a while, but those attempts were all jeopardized by Saudi Arabia. In late April, Saudi fighters drove three Iranian cargo planes out of Yemeni airspace. Then, coalition aircraft bombed the runway at the airport in Sana’a to prevent Iranian cargo planes from landing there.

The coalition led by Saudi Arabia along with the US keeps accusing Iran of shipping small weapons to the Houthis. On the other hand, as a result of recent coalition air strikes, hundreds of Yemeni lives have been lost. Iran called the ongoing military operations in Yemen a veritable genocide. A spokesman for the White House, Josh Earnest, has already declared that Washington is in possession of evidence that Iranians are supplying Yemeni rebels with weapons and military equipment, a sign according to the White House, of “destabilizing behavior.” In any case, the ongoing military aggression may trigger a military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran at any moment.

However, on May 8, Reuters announced that the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, Adel Al Jubeir, announced that Saudi Arabia recognized the need to introduce a five-day cease-fire in Yemen since May 12. According to the US Secretary of State John Kerry, the truce in Yemen was imperative to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid. On May 11, Saudi Arabia ceased the execution of its military operation “Restore Hope”. In order to ensure that the ceasefire is observed by all sides the new UN envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, flew to Sana’a on Tuesday. It was held while also holding negotiations with the Houthis where the special envoy underlined that his task at hand was to make this ceasefire a permanent one before starting an internal political dialogue. But on May 12 the coalition forces were still raining bombs down upon Sana’a outskirts hours before the ceasefire. As a result some 70 people were killed, while more than a hundred were reported injured.

The General People’s Congress led by ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh supported the five-day cease-fire that was proposed by Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Saudi Arabian Airlines canceled flights near the border areas with Yemen, especially in the province of Najran, where KSA strike forces are being deployed. GCC countries are concerned about the possible interference of Iran in the ongoing Yemeni crisis. In an effort to reassure US allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain) US President Barack Obama decided to invite all the members of the GCC on May 14 to his second residence at Camp David. Invitations were sent out back in March, when Washington made an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

The new Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud refused to go to the US, though initially he was showing his readiness to take “a walk in the woods” at Camp David. It seems that he doesn’t like to be treated on par with the leaders of other Gulf states, since the “custodian of the two holy places” (his official title) has always believed that he must occupy a special place among them. In addition, a number of old or sick leaders refused to respond to the invitation. International experts believe that the young princes that held a meeting with the US president are already deciding (to a certain extent) the policies of their countries, so they were competent enough to negotiate ways of countering the expansion of Iran in the region.

Saudi officials believe that tension is mounting rapidly in the region, due to the naive position of the US administration towards Iran. They believe that Barack Obama is only thinking about the successful closure of the deal on Iran’s nuclear program, while giving Iran full freedom in Syria and Yemen. The Arab states would love to have a military alliance based on the NATO model, where an attack on one member automatically requires all others to respond. However, Washington wouldn’t agree to consider this question since the region is too unstable and such privileges are only granted to Israel.

Alexander Orlov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.