Photo Credit: (Image: YouTube, Christoph Hoerstel)
Iran Shahed, with stern decked out in Yemeni flags. Iranian flag flies from traditional position on center fantail.

But another is the UN sanctions on Iran, which prohibit the proliferation of arms abroad. UNSCRs 1747, 1803, and 1929 together impose an arms embargo on Iran (proliferation abroad and purchases by Iran), and call on member states to inspect Iranian ships and aircraft (as well as ships and aircraft chartered by Iran) to ensure they aren’t carrying prohibited arms.

Some nations have used this authority to actively intercept arms cargos coming from Iran, such as Israel and Turkey. But in the Obama years, the U.S. has not taken this active role. In April, the U.S. military was emphatic that it had been given no mission to interdict Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis. That clarification would cover both the enforcement of the embargo around Yemen, and the enforcement of UN sanctions on Iranian arms proliferation in general. Bottom line: it would be a major change in policy, and would probably surprise the heck out of Congress, if Obama suddenly had the U.S. Navy stop and board Iran Shahed.

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The fourth dimension is the one mentioned above: U.S. sanctions against the ship and the shipping line. But those sanctions would be hard to enforce in the Iran Shahed case: we have no mechanism for putting pressure on a third party to withhold cooperation or financial participation from Iran, as a way of preventing a shipment. This is Iran’s show, and there’s no third-party involvement.

It’s also worth noting that the Obama administration appears to be backing off of enforcing the financial sanctions against Iranian shipping anyway. Claudia Rosett reported earlier this month that Iran’s ships are plying the world’s waters and ports with increasing openness – and U.S. officials were basically unresponsive when she queried them in April about a ship with a history of highly suspect behavior, which had recently pulled into Venezuela.

That fits an emerging pattern in which the Treasury sanctions are now being ignored. Eli Lake pointed out last week that the recent sale of jets to Iran’s Mahan Air (yes, an ironic name for naval observers) violates the Treasury sanctions list. That apparently didn’t stop the parties to the sale, which reportedly included Virgin Atlantic and Iraq’s Al-Naser Airlines.

The sanctions also didn’t stop Oman, in late April, from launching a new joint shipping venture with Iran, which will inevitably involve the Iranian companies and ships that are under Treasury sanctions. Oman doesn’t seem to expect a backlash from this move.

Sanctions don’t enforce themselves. In general, the sanctions against Iran appear already to be on the skids. And in the specific case of Iran Shahed, there is no sanctions mechanism that will kick in somehow to stand between the ship’s cargo and the Houthis. There’s only the Saudi navy.

Showdown Off Yemen

The next few days will tell the tale. The Iranians and Saudis have both vowed to see it through: the Saudis to enforce the embargo, the Iranians to refuse boarding or inspection.

According to Nader Uskowi, a highly regarded blogger on Iranian affairs, Iran says the ship’s visit to Hodeidah has been coordinated with the UN.


Nader Uskowi
‏@nuskowi
#Iran says it coordinated aid delivery, docking of Iran Shahed at #Yemen port with UN. Avoiding naval confrontation

If this statement from Iran is accurate, it means the UN has gone in the space of a month from believing sanctions on the Houthis need to be enforced, to accepting anything Iran – an inveterate sanctions violator – says about the cargo she dispatches. The peculiarity of our time is that that is certainly possible.

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J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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