Everybody calm down. This proliferation of Sudden Naval Analysts is getting out of hand.
A number of sites — including the top news sites — have rushed out in the last couple of hours with a report that the Iranian convoy off Yemen has turned around and is heading back to Iran. The implication is that the terror of being “shadowed” and “tracked” by the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and her air wing was just too much for the Iranian shipdrivers.
Besides the fact that we can’t determine in the span of a few short hours where the Iranian ships are heading, there’s the fact that the Pentagon’s official spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren, told reporters just a short while ago that the ships were still off Yemen, and he couldn’t confirm their direction or confirm reports that they were headed back to Iran.
Says The Hill:
The Pentagon said Thursday that a nine-ship Iranian convoy remains in the waters around Yemen, 200 miles away from a U.S. aircraft carrier, despite reports that it was turning back.
“What I will confirm is that they remain in the region. They have not announced their intentions and we continue to monitor their activities,” said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren.
However, Warren said he could not confirm the specific direction that the convoy of cargo ships was heading.
“Ships can change direction at any time so I don’t want to characterize exactly what they’re doing,” he said. “Let it develop a little bit. If we see a pattern we’ll you know.”
The Washington Examiner has the same story, pointing out that two Iranian frigates have now joined the convoy of freighters. (This appears to update earlier reporting which implied that the freighter convoy already had an armed escort. If it’s accurate to say that the Iranian warships have only just joined the convoy, that puts a different character on where the Iranian chain of command is in the decision cycle about what the convoy will do.)
Warren’s official comments are spot-on. We can’t tell yet what the Iranians are doing right now, much less what they intend. They may be trying to figure out their next move, if it looks like their freighters are going to be under 24/7 surveillance by the Roosevelt air wing.
Although that might look like a big triumph, it looks that way only from a simplistic and superficial perspective. The job of interdicting these freighters effectively could be done without the aircraft carrier being involved at all. It wouldn’t look so dramatic to the public, but it would still get done — and done right, by the naval forces that do it for a living. It’s irresponsible overkill to put the carrier on this task, especially given the task we are leaving poorly attended and half-supported back in Iraq.
Here’s one other thing to know. The Iranian warships have immunity from boarding under the Law of the Sea conventions (Article 95), and Iran could at least pretend that the freighters have immunity under Article 96, which covers “ships used only on government non-commercial service.” Faking the ships’ status documentation (i.e., “lying”) just long enough to avert a U.S.-initiated boarding operation is clearly something the Iranians would do.
Also worth keeping in mind: the military has now clarified twice that it has no mission to intercept arms going to the Houthis. This would be in large part because there has been no formal confirmation of such a mission; e.g., with the approval of Congress, or at least by presidential order. If a confrontation at sea were to develop, it’s quite possible that the Iranians could ultimately outface us, because our commander in chief has no actual plan.
There’s every chance the Obama administration has no intention of letting a confrontation develop, of course. The administration may be trying to reprise its signal triumph from the summer of 2009, when it dispatched U.S. Navy warships to chase the North Korean arms carrier Kang Nam around Southeast Asia for several weeks — from a distance — until the ship finally returned to North Korea. The administration didn’t stop and board the ship, under the authority of UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1724, because North Korea announced it would consider any such interception as an act of war. Hey, “smart power” does require more fuel.
If the Iranians have already seen where such a time-wasting standoff is going, perhaps we won’t be treated to another extended freighter-chase. Or, who knows, maybe they have something up their sleeves. Maybe they’re ready to call our bluff, if they can get out of weapons range of a Saudi or Egyptian warship to do it. In any case, we can probably count on the Sudden Naval Analysts to keep us misinformed.