Photo Credit: (Image: YouTube, Christoph Hoerstel)
Iran Shahed, with stern decked out in Yemeni flags. Iranian flag flies from traditional position on center fantail.
Dr. Akram Awad
‏@akram_awad
#Iran Shahed cargo vessel’s latest position off #Yemen shoreline near Al-Mukalla, and ETA 20-21/05
#Saudi #Ship

But say for the sake of alertness that it’s not. What exactly is going on out there? Iran Shahed entered the Gulf of Aden over the weekend, and on Sunday, Fars News reported that a frigate from the anti-piracy coalition was following the ship. Time gives a slightly different account, based on a phone call with the Fars reporter onboard Iran Shahed:

Bakhtiari, who was speaking via satellite phone from the deck of the ship, said their vessel was approached by a ship on Sunday morning, which requested information by radio. “It kept a 6-mile distance and asked our port of origin and destination and followed us for some time. But when our ship’s captain asked it to identify itself it just said it is part of the coalition and didn’t say whether it was the anti-piracy coalition or the Saudi-led coalition.”

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This seems, well, incompetent on the part of the ship’s captain, and certainly on the part of his armed escort, the Iranian frigate Alborz. Neither ship’s crew should have had any difficulty identifying the approaching ship or knowing which coalition it was part of. (Alborz has been deployed as part of Iran’s 34th Flotilla, for anti-piracy operations, since mid-April, and assuredly knows every warship that’s operating in the Gulf of Aden.)

But perhaps the reporters and activists onboard Iran Shahed are being kept in the dark. None of them, as far as I can tell, has been enterprising enough to take pictures of the ships they encounter – such as the coalition frigate on Sunday morning – and post them to social media. (If they did, hundreds of naval intelligence professionals around the world could help the Iran Shahed’s master identify which coalition warships are hailing him on bridge-to-bridge.) The activists do, however, assure us that they’ve been allowed to view the 2,500 kilos of humanitarian cargo, and are satisfied that there are no arms lurking in the crates.

The two Americans onboard are Tighe Barry of CODEPINK and activist Caleb Maupin (Robert Naiman, originally scheduled to participate, had to drop out at the last minute). A German reporter and activist, Christoph Hoerstel, has posted some updates, and gave an audio interview on May 11, the ship’s departure date. (For German speakers, his video update from Sunday, 17 May, is here.) Explore their musings at your leisure.

Saudi Air Strikes On shipping?

Meanwhile, Iranian media have reported in the last 48 hours that “Saudi warplanes” conducted air strikes against “UNICEF ships” trying to make a delivery to northern Yemen on some recent but unnamed date. However, the image used by Press TV, attributed to UNICEF Yemen, was posted on Twitter by UNICEF Yemen without any reference to interference from the Saudis. The UNICEF tweet shows several ships, all of which, according to the tweet, successfully delivered humanitarian cargo to locations in southern Yemen. So the whole thing looks like Iran trying to get something started.

That said, Press TV cites Yemeni television as its source. And it’s not impossible that the Saudis have threatened unapproved ships trying to make for the coast. Off of northern Yemen, it would probably be Saudi aircraft, as Saudi warships are concentrated around southern Yemen, where the battle with the Houthis rages.

We can expect, in general, that the mainstream media will downplay whatever happens, if it should raise expectations in the public mind that the U.S. will do anything about this situation. U.S. officials assure us that we are tracking Iran Shahed, but that is meaningless. We won’t be using national power to avert the development of an armed standoff, nor will we be there to settle one.

Maybe we’ll get lucky, and Iran Shahed will divert somewhere (Eritrea, perhaps) rather than face down the Saudi navy. That won’t end the crisis, however. Iran will be all the more determined to assert authority, with gunfire, over the Strait of Hormuz. It won’t be very long before this complete collapse of the U.S. enforcement posture on the high seas will affect American trade interests, along with everyone else’s.

 

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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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