By Steven Matthews
For almost the fourth week in a row, Saudi Arabia and its allies have continued with their air war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Along with many deaths of the rebels on the ground, the civilian population has sustained casualties as well. Early estimates have the civilian death toll at around 500 people and almost 400 for the Houthi rebels. Both groups have children deaths added into their totals, because notably, many children seem to be involved in the fighting, at least the ones who are not trying to flee. Many other people have been injured, and over 100,000 people have been displaced and had their homes destroyed due to the Saudi led airstrikes. In addition to the violence on the ground in Yemen, an increase in the U.S. presence at sea off the southern coast seems to prove that this is little more a proxy war between the United States and Iran, despite the fact that they have just agreed on a framework for a nuclear peace deal in other parts of the world. Perhaps what is most interesting about this is the fact that the U.S. has publically announced its plans to directly intervene in the situation in Yemen, showing a rare form of transparency in this situation.
Initially, most of the rhetoric coming from the U.S. media involving the Houthi rebels was that they are supported by Iran, even though nobody could prove to what extent that is true. It would seem now we are closer to getting an answer. The Pentagon has gone on record saying they have been tracking a shipping convoy of 6 to 8 ships that left Iran heading for Yemen. Iranian spokespeople have said that the convoy is carrying humanitarian aid for the Yemeni civilians, but officials in the U.S. government believe that the ships are carrying arms for the Houthi rebels instead. Those officials cite the recent U.N. Security Council resolution 2216 (2015) which prohibits any country or entity from giving aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even though this resolution has been rejected by multiple parts of the remaining Yemeni government, the U.N. passed it anyway. Now Saudi Arabia, along with its many allies, controls all the ports and sea traffic to and from Yemen.
None of these factors seemed to dissuade the country of Iran because they have sent a convoy of ships toward Yemen. Many interested parties speculate on what those ships are carrying, but in reality, no one knows what is on them, except for the people that loaded them. Those ships are coming though and the United States has decided that the risk is too great and that they must intervene. They already had five or six war ships hanging out in the Gulf of Aden but they have decided to send a few more. One of them is a guided missile ship (U.S.S. Normandy) and the other happens to be an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt to be exact, a Nimitz class carrier with over 5,500 Navy personnel on board.
Even though the U.S. is rushing to get to the Yemeni coast, they have stated that any encounter with the Iranian ships would have the Saudi Arabians at the lead, but it’s hard to imagine the better equipped U.S. Navy to just sit idly by in that scenario. That also gives us the first real question. When that Iranian convoy gets to Yemen, someone is going to demand that the Iranian ships allow themselves to be boarded and searched. It does not really matter what country takes the lead there, what matters is how the Iranians respond. If they allow themselves to be searched, what happens if weapons and military supplies is the cargo? What does that do to the impending nuclear peace deal? Worse still, what if they deny the Saudi coalition the ability to board their ships, and instead make a break for the ports? How far will the Saudis go to stop anything from getting through? Are they willing to jeopardize the nuclear peace process that has been cobbled together by Iran and U.S. and its allies? Considering the actions of the Saudi leadership so far, and the havoc they have caused in Yemen with their air strikes, it is not hard to imagine that they would be willing to take some drastic measures and destroy the Iranian cargo ships. Either way, we are headed for an obvious tense situation between the U.S. Navy, the Saudi Arabian Navy, and the Iranian cargo ships; and whatever happens could affect not only the people in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but also the United States and Iran in unforeseeable ways. Here’s hoping that the players involved keep a level head with the welfare of everyone in mind.
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