When we left our story on Monday, the Iran Shahed was in the Gulf of Aden heading for the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and was expected to arrive at Hodeidah, Yemen on Thursday, 21 May. A U.S. military spokesman had encouraged Iran to have the ship offload its cargo in Djibouti and let the UN transport it to Yemen. But the Iranians were having none of that.
By Wednesday morning, however, Iran had decided to allow the ship to be inspected by the UN in Djibouti, before it continued on to Hodeidah. That is significantly different from what the low-level U.S. military spokesman — the only person who made an official U.S. suggestion — proposed.
Iran Shahed turned toward Djibouti on Wednesday. Djibouti refused the ship entry on Wednesday – apparently in something of a diplomatic tizzy over the prospect of the uncoordinated stop – but on Thursday, at 6:30 PM Djibouti time, Iran Shahed was finally able to dock.
— MisterD.jib (@davdjib) May 21, 2015
The Iran Shahed arrived at the main port of Djibouti around 6:30 p.m. local time
— Iran دانشجو ایران (@GreenQuran) May 21, 2015
What Iran is doing is trying to undermine the idea of the Saudi embargo of Yemen. (More in a minute on why I phrase it that way.) If Iran were not trying to undermine the embargo, she could just offload the ship’s cargo in Djibouti and let the UN transport and distribute it.
By insisting on continuing to Hodeidah, Iran wants to establish that the maritime enforcement aspect of the Saudi embargo can be breached. If Iran can make even one “humanitarian” run to Hodeidah, the precedent will be set that someone besides the UN can move humanitarian goods to Yemen, and can use a route other than what the UN is using.
The Law of the Sea standard for an embargo, properly administered, is that it is absolute, and if any exceptions are made to the enforcement, other parties may consider the embargo broken.
It muddies the waters to some extent at the outset, if the UN is allowed to move goods into Yemen. Technically, that could be considered a breach of the embargo. The Saudis probably didn’t think it was worth tackling that concern when the UN set up shop in Djibouti – largely because it was really out of the Saudis’ hands anyway. They don’t have the means to impose an absolute embargo that would exclude even the UN. Yemen’s coastline is very long, and the resources of the Saudis’ coalition are limited.
Moreover, trying to exclude UN-sponsored humanitarian aid would incur political ill will, stacking the deck against the Saudis in an era when UN missions to assist the refugees of civil wars have become routine.
There’s a real sense in which the Saudi embargo isn’t really a textbook embargo, but a determination to prevent arms from getting to the Houthis, by sea or air. That the Saudi determination has a UN resolution behind it is nice for the Saudis, but doesn’t actually make their practical situation easier.
The Saudis have a cargo-specific rather than a territorially general intent. And on that premise, geography and circumstance make it difficult to maintain the idea of an embargo, which is key to having it respected.
An illuminating contrast may be seen with Israel’s enforcement of the embargo on Gaza. Israel also wants, specifically, to prevent arms from getting to Hamas, and Israel also allows humanitarian goods to be transported into Gaza.
But: Israel has the means to enforce a complete maritime embargo on Gaza’s short coastline. It’s physically and militarily feasible to enforce it absolutely, in a way that would be more difficult and potentially provocative for the Saudi coalition off Yemen. Israel makes no exceptions for maritime transport into Gaza. All humanitarian and commercial shipments, including the UN’s, go by land through Israeli or Egyptian checkpoints.
(If the same principle were to apply to the Saudi Arabia-Yemen situation, the Saudis would require that all goods bound for Yemen be routed through Saudi Arabia – and they would also have the cooperation of Oman in enforcing a similar requirement. The size of Yemen’s coastline, and the overall situation and the way the conflict has developed, make that impossible. Some maritime transport that is not under Saudi control is inevitable, if UN aid is to be shipped into Yemen.)
Even though Israel lets a great deal of humanitarian cargo into Gaza, she is actually enforcing a textbook maritime embargo, one that she never allows to be breached. The idea of an embargo remains, in principle, intact.
The embargo is also an inconvenience for no one other than Gazans, and those who are trying to breach it. That circumstance has worked in Israel’s favor.
The same cannot be said for an embargo of the entire coastline of Yemen, which closely abuts one of the world’s busiest maritime chokepoints. And if the would-be embargo buster headed for Yemen is accompanied by an Iranian warship, the potential for escalation and spillover into the commercial transit lanes is much greater than it is off Gaza.
Iran shoots for the holes
What this all amounts to is a quasi-embargo, with vulnerabilities, or gray areas, that Iran is now working to exploit. If the UN gets to transport cargo into Yemen, Iran will try to make her ships de facto agents of the UN, and dare the Saudis to treat them differently from vessels literally chartered by the UN.
I suspect the UN wisely wanted nothing to do with this – and Djibouti certainly wants no involvement – which may partially explain the delay in allowing Iran Shahed to enter port. I don’t think the UN will want to be in the business of certifying cargos so that Iran will feel justified in defying the Saudi embargo.
We’ll find out shortly what, if anything, the UN is willing to “certify” after inspecting what’s on Iran Shahed. I haven’t seen any official word from the UN that they plan to do the inspection (although there’s a good chance they will, if Security Council members think it’s a good idea). The possibility remains that it will be up to the Red Crescent – perhaps with the cooperation of the Red Cross – to inspect and certify the cargo. Since there are reportedly Red Crescent workers on Iran Shahed, who left Bandar Abbas with the ship, there is legitimate reason for concern about how credible this certification would be.
We don’t know what the Saudis will do, in any case. There’s no one who can stop them from forcing an armed standoff with Iran Shahed’s escorts – it can’t be done without taking sides against the Saudi coalition, at any rate.
Iran Shahed may have no prohibited cargo at all, meanwhile, but the ship’s role is probably more to set a game-changing precedent than to actually deliver cargo.
The Saudis will be motivated to keep the idea of their embargo intact, in order to discourage further attempts by Iran. No embargo is feasible that tries to pick and choose among embargo-busters: allowing the “certified aid ships” of untrustworthy third parties to pass, but intercepting others. It’s always possible to arrange for more of these ambiguous “problem ships” than an enforcement task force can effectively deal with on a selective basis. (Which is one reason Israel has to make the maritime embargo of Gaza absolute.)
Deploying a decoy?
And that point raises another one. I mentioned in the comments section at this post that Iran Shahed appeared to fill the role of a decoy in January of 2009, when the ship tried to enter Gazan waters at the same time M/V Monchegorsk – a ship not visibly connected to Iran – was making its way into the Red Sea, headed for Syria with a prohibited cargo of Iranian arms.
The arms on Monchegorsk weren’t headed for Gaza, at least not immediately. They were supposed to be offloaded in Syria. But Hezbollah had the means to try to sneak them into Gaza from Lebanon, using small boats – and, of course, to use them for Hezbollah’s own purposes against Israel. The Monchegorsk’s shipment was undoubtedly meant to supply Iran’s clients during Operation Cast Lead, and both ships’ adventures originated with Iran, at very close to the same time.
We should not discount the possibility that Iran Shahed is functioning as a decoy again. The ship could fill both roles: decoy; and UN-certified, embargo-undermining aid-delivery agent.
If there’s another cargo somewhere, being quietly staged through routine shipping for covert movement into Yemen, I’d be looking at Eritrea as the staging point. The Saudis have fingered Eritrea’s port of Assab as the hub for Iranian support to the Houthis for a long time, and they aren’t the only ones who have noticed the growing Iranian presence there. Small boat traffic – harder to track and interdict than ocean-going cargo ships – can take advantage of the archipelagos in the southern Red Sea, and Yemen’s largely undeveloped Red Sea coastline, to evade Saudi coalition surveillance.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy (IRGCN) made money hand over fist off the sanctions-evasion industry in the Persian Gulf between 1991 and 2003, when UN sanctions were being enforced on Saddam’s Iraq. This is something they know very well how to do. Whatever the Saudis do about Iran Shahed, the probability is strong that Iran will be trying to get around the Saudi enforcement mechanisms with basic evasion maneuvers, along with other lines of effort.
One other possibility must be mentioned. Iran could be planning to deliver arms to the Houthis using the naval supply ship Bushehr, which is operating with the frigate Alborz in the Iranian 34th Flotilla. Bushehr, as a supply ship, has a large cargo capacity, and has probably been involved previously in arms deliveries in Sudan and Syria: cargos which were intended ultimately for Hamas.
It’s significant to note about the warships that they can’t lawfully be intercepted on the high seas, or in Yemeni waters by third parties (like the Saudis). A nation’s warships are immune from such interdiction, even when there are UN sanctions being enforced on cargo carriers. Armed intercept of them constitutes a belligerent act. That wouldn’t necessarily stop the Saudis from confronting the Iranian warships. But the paper cover of a “UN-certified” Iran Shahed – or even just the semblance of it – would be an asset in the effort to get Bushehr into a Yemeni port. It would make any Saudi moves seem, at least, less justified.
Post-Pax world: Permanent headache
If all this makes you head hurt, keep in mind two things. One, it’s what the Iranians do. It doesn’t make their heads hurt. They’ve been employing just such devious methods to try to move arms to Hamas and Hezbollah – and the Houthis – for years. (The deployment of Iran Shahed can even be seen, in metaphor, as a chess move.)
The other thing is that when there’s no force majeure being exercised by a superpower, the simplification that comes with that is missing in these conflict situations. Don’t look for American actions that will simplify or clarify what to expect. Don’t look for anyone else’s actions to have that effect. This is the world we live in now. We’ll have to get used to it.