Iranian Ships Head for Showdown with U.S. Off Coast of Yemen

United States Navy/ Reuters
United States Navy/ Reuters

A showdown at sea between the U.S. and Iran is brewing off the coast of Yemen.

An Iranian cargo ship allegedly containing 2,500 tons of humanitarian relief has been joined off the coast of Yemen by two Iranian warships. The ship is ignoring UN requests that it divert for an inspection of its cargo. Unless the ship changes course, the situation could set up a confrontation with the United States, which will have to decide whether to board it or prevent it from reaching port.

The latest conflict at sea is part of an escalating sequence of events that has taken place over the last several weeks. Last month, a convoy of nine Iranian ships believed to be carrying weapons meant for Houthi rebels in Yemen turned around after a group of U.S. warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, took up positions off the coast.

Five days after the Iranian convoy turned away, Iran’s Navy seized a Maersk cargo ship flying a Marshall Islands flag. Iran claimed the seizure was in response to a court order. The ship was released just over a week later.

On May 11th, another cargo ship dubbed Nejat (Rescue) left the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas headed for Yemen. Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said at the time, “No permission will be granted to countries involved in the war on Yemen to inspect the ship carrying the Islamic Republic of Iran’s humanitarian aid.” As if to emphasize that point, the cargo ship is now being escorted toward Yemen by two Iranian warships.

The UN has asked Iran to divert the cargo ship to the country of Djibouti for inspection, but so far, it is not clear whether Iran will heed that request. If it does not, the U.S. will have to decide whether to attempt to board the ship or try to prevent it from reaching port.

NBC News reports that unnamed U.S. officials suspect Iran is trying to provoke a confrontation with the U.S. in hopes of demonstrating its innocence. They note that, in addition to supplies, the ship also has international activists on board to witness whatever action the U.S. takes. However, there are also concerns that allowing the shipment to go through without inspection will set a bad precedent.

Yemen has become the scene of a proxy war between Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels, and Saudi Arabia, which is running an aerial bombardment campaign in hopes of restoring the previous government.