Iranian tankers and covert attacks

Iranian tankers and covert attacks

March 13, 2021

By Nat South for the Saker Blog

The WSJ published an exclusive article on covert Israeli targeting of Iranian ships and shipments going to Syria, going back several years. Here is the headline:

“WSJ News Exclusive | Israeli Strikes Target Iranian Oil Bound for Syria”

To shed some light on the matter and give some broader context to the WSJ exclusive, I produced a draft visual timeline of notable events, of maritime incidents occurring to Iranian ships or those connected to Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, as well as the timeline of some of the highly publicised sabotage attacks in the MEG / Arabian Sea / Gulf of Oman region.  The visual is not a complete list of the incidents but just an outline.

Figure 1 Figure 1 – Timeline of notable maritime incidents

Obviously, there is still chunks of data / information missing on particular events, given the numbers of attacks cited in the WSJ article, if the figure of at least 12 attack is a rough baseline to work from:

  • 3 in 2019
  • 6 in 2020
  • 3 (?) in 2021

The curious case of the oil spill

One ship that I did not specifically list is the Iranian connected, Panama flagged tanker ‘Emerald’, which the Israeli Environmental ministry recently accused of being the source of the catastrophic oil spill off the Eastern Med on the 16th of February, causing the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history. It is probable that this was not another targeted ship, although as it stands, Israel has not commented on the WSJ report.

It was certainly a little more than unusual for Israel to issue a news embargo on the name of the ship. The ‘Emerald’ had indeed headed to Syria from the Suez Canal, yet managed to carry out a Ship-to-Ship transfer, (STS), off Syria, without a hitch and also return to Suez without any noticeable traces of causing pollution. It sure gets weirder. Stalely, the West MSM went into a whirl reporting the ‘news’ about an Iranian linked ship, without even batting an eye to find out more about any evidence to actually prove the case.

It is rather strange and a bit more than a coincidence that this ‘bombshell’ revelation by the WSJ is made by US officials no less! But the WSJ alludes to an attack, that oddly matches the description of the incident suffered by the ‘Emerald’:

In an episode last month, suspected Israeli operatives attached a limpet mine to attack an Iranian vessel as it anchored near Lebanon to deliver Iran oil to Syria, according to the first shipping professional. Israel’s military declined to comment on the incident.

If it wasn’t the Emerald, judging from satellite imagery and maritime OSINT articles, then who was it?

The incident outlined in the WSJ may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back due to the consequences and repercussions of this attack. Did a situation get out of hand, so much so that it incurred Washington’s displeasure or was Washington rattled? There is certainly more to this story than a spate of attacks, as Washington officialdom seemed not to be too bothered about Israeli up to recently.

Commentary

The WSJ exclusive makes for an interesting shift in perspective on maritime murky goings on in the Middle East and clearly demonstrates the reckless hubris of Israeli military operations, (putting both feet at the same time in the mouth), that proved to have a much greater and significant consequence for the whole region. I would like to underline that such antagonistic attacks and retaliatory actions are ultimately self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

In light of this revelation of the clandestine operations, this raises questions regarding the series of sabotage attacks in the Arabian Sea back in 2019. A revaluation is also needed in order to understand the wider context of such strange attacks, as outlined back in an article in 2019, [1].

It is not surprising that Israel has carried out naval operations against ships carrying Iranian oil bound for Syria and also cargo ships suspected of circumventing weapons sanctions. This MO fits in with its overall posture towards Syria and Iran, principally in carrying out air strikes against what it sees as “Iranian regime” units operating in Syria and doing everything it can in order to weaken the Syrian government.

This highlights just the tip of the iceberg so to speak, in a barely concealed war against Iran. These Israeli operations are nevertheless a clear expansion of hostilities in the Mideast, so maybe Washington drew a line in the sand by allowing the officials to carry out limited “damage control”. Not that Washington will be able reign in such Israeli hubris.

Maritime incidents

Noticeably, the exclusive report came a day after an alleged attack on an Iranian containership far off the northern Israeli coast on the 10th March.  The ‘Shahr e Kord’ was heading to Syria, when a fire broke onboard, with several containers located on the bow damaged.  The ship did slow down and change course, (but eventually went to Baniyas, (next to the Russian naval base, so it may have been inspected by the Russian military). The ship operator, IRISL, called it “terrorist act” and provided this statement:

After an explosive object hit the hull, a brief fire broke out…which was immediately contained by the timely efforts of the captain and crew of the ship“.

It is noteworthy that many of the previous incidents have not been publicly acknowledged by Iranian authorities.

AIS screenshot

Image 1 – AIS track of Shahr E Kord 10th March 2021

A kite flying in the sky Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Image 2 – AIS screenshot of track at time of incident

There are comments suggesting that this was some kind of response to the attack on the Bahamian flagged but Israel-owned MV ‘Helios Ray’ RO-RO vehicle carrier in the Gulf of Oman, since the timing between the two is relatively close.  Having said that, it doesn’t make much sense in relation to the 2019 tanker attacks with limpet mines, with Iran blamed, because these happened before the suspected attacks on the Iranian tankers in the Red Sea. Unless… it is was a dry run.

Yet, surmising that the attack on the MV ‘Helios Ray’ could be equally considered as retaliatory operations, which Iranian ships got attacked beforehand?

One incident that stands out is the 2019 attack on the ‘Sabiti‘, as it fits into the pattern of a furtive attack which caused a 200+ km long oil spill in the Red Sea, as can be seen in this image. The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) reported that it was struck by 2 rockets off the Saudi coast. Unlike those that took place in June 2019, this unusual and unidentified attack barely raised a whisper in the MSM, helpfully swept under the carpet under the cover of the Yemeni conflict.

The 2019 attacks in the Fujairah anchorage were strange, as was the attack on the MV ‘Helios Ray’ last month. The resulting damage was visually spectacular, but it was limited, and it did not cripple or sink the ships. Comments made regarding the placing of limpet mines under the waterline by naval divers are not incorrect in a historical context, but that doesn’t stop someone onboard a small boat from placing one just above the waterline, as a demonstration of a show of force, to prove a point.

The aftermath between these two events contrasted greatly with what happened to the laden tanker ‘Sabiti’ and also the ‘Kokura Courageous’ and ‘Altair’, with accompanying dramatic satellite images of oil spills and images of onboard fires.

Predictably, a series of attacks in the Red Sea and in the Arabian Sea continue to be seen by the US, KSA and other Gulf states, as being the handiwork of “Iranian-backed” groups, as this article suggests. As always is the case with these attacks, officials or authorities cite that it is either weapons that match an Iranian model or the use of technology with Iranian ties.

In what appears to be a new form and expanded re-run of the 80s ‘tanker wars”, now civilian mariners have to face the risk of limpet mines, explosion-laden drone boats, as well as sea mines, not to mention the risk of ship seizures from both the US (*) and Iran.

Interestingly, Israel has deployed one of its Dolphin-II Class submarine to the Red Sea. Although capable of deploying special forces, the recent photos of the submarine in Eilat does not show that it has the Special Operations Forces (SOF) hangar on it. That does not mean to say that Israel isn’t using its submarines to support such covert operations.

Russian Navy

According to this USNI article, the Russian Navy has been seen escorting an Iranian sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean tanker bound to Syria, in Oct 2020. To note that this coincides with a Russian Navy exercise near to Tartus, “to ensure the calm passage of civilian vessels”. Part of the exercise was to respond to a submarine attack on a merchant ship and also “to monitor the situation at depth and on the surface, and to create a safe area for the passage of merchant ships.”

Maybe a one-off exercise or the start of ad hoc escorts of tankers? Certainly, it indicates that Russia was aware of ships being targeted. Whether it is also the case that ships heading up the Red Sea also get escorted is not known, although at the time of writing this, the corvette ‘Stoiky’ made a port call to Oman, so there is a very limited Russian Navy presence in the area. The Project 22160 class large patrol ship ‘Dmitry Rogachev’, is currently forward deployed to Tartus, and it is ideally placed to carry out escort work and close-to-shore missions. Even closer to shore, is the deployment of the aptly designated anti-saboteur Grachanok class and the fast Raptor boats.

The concern over covert operations is hinted at several times, with a publicised joint Russian & Syrian exercises at Tartus that took place back in December, aimed at repelling an attack by saboteurs on the Russian base.

The outcome is that these exercises can equally apply to the nearby Baniyas terminal, where the Iranian oil is delivered since the undersea pipelines from the offshore mooring points suffered underwater damage from suspected limpet mines, (June 2019 , January 2020). Similarly, the naval exercise in October 2020 was also about responding to a potential threat of SOF “group of swimmers” that could have been deployed from a submarine.

Overall, both the covert attacks on merchant shipping and the sabotage of undersea pipelines are arguably significant incidents as they can have a catastrophic environmental consequence as well economic impact on a vital hub. It will remain to be seen whether the public disclosure made in the WSJ article will change anything, in all likelihood, these clandestine actions be just simply glossed over. It could raise the stakes even further, as Israel may well start overt naval operations. Lasty, it will remain to be seen how Iran will respond to this announcement and how the Russian naval posture in the region will evolve accordingly.

More information and analysis of this later as any details come to the fore.

NB (*) It turns out that the US actually seized a cargo of Iraqi oil, with a company owned by the Emirate of Fujairah claiming a stake of the cargo. Who needs enemies with ‘friends’ like that? So, the maverick global sheriff alleges, seizes, (should that be steals), without any qualms whatsoever and then gets it completely wrong.

More

Israel Reportedly Points Finger at Iran After Cargo Ship Explosion in Gulf of Oman

Ship fire Gulf of Oman
A video grab shows a fire and smoke billowing from a ship in the Gulf of Oman (photo by Gulf Today).

Source

15:03 GMT 27.02.2021

An explosion that ripped through an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday could be the work of Iran, The Times of Israel reports, citing unnamed Israeli officials as saying.  

Unsourced reports from the Israeli media outlets Haaretz and Channel 13 claimed that Iran knew that the vessel was owned by an Israeli businessman – who himself rejected the speculation pertaining to the Islamic Republic.

A separate unsourced report by Israel’s Channel 12 asserted that the explosion was caused by a missile fired by an Iranian warship.

This was echoed by the maritime risk-management firm Dryad Global, which tweeted on Friday that the blast could possibly stem from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military”. Tehran has not commented on the matter yet.

The company identified the ship as the MV Helios Ray, claiming that the blast took place as the vessel with 28 crew members on board was about 44 nautical miles (50 miles) from Oman’s capital Muscat.

No one was reportedly hurt in the blast, which ostensibly caused several holes in the port and starboard sides of the ship, owned by Israeli businessman Abraham Ungar, founder of Ray Shipping Ltd.

The maritime risk intelligence company Ambrey Intelligence posted a raft of photos on its Twitter page, thought to show damage to the Helios Ray as a result of the explosion. The authenticity of the images has yet to be confirmed.

The Israeli media reports come as the satellite-tracking data from the website MarineTraffic.com showed that the explosion-hit cargo ship arrived at a Dubai port earlier on Saturday.

This was preceded by Ungar being quoted by the Ynet news outlet as claiming that the explosion was most likely caused by “missiles or a mine placed on the bow”.

“Israeli authorities will investigate this together with me. I don’t think this deliberately targeted an Israeli-owned ship. That has not happened to me before”, the businessman added.

He reportedly went even further by asserting that the blast could be “part of the game between Iran and the US, that’s why they are hitting Western ships”.

The claims come after the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said, without providing further details, that a ship was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman at 20:40 GMT on Thursday. The UKMTO added that “investigations are ongoing” and that the “vessel and crew are safe”.

Iran-US Tensions

The developments come amid increasing tensions between Tehran and the US, Israel’s ally, which escalated on 25 February, when two F-15 jets launched seven missiles in Syrian territory, following an order from US President Joe Biden.

The attack destroyed nine facilities and partially damaged two facilities, making them unsuitable for use. The facilities were used, according to Washington, by Shia militia group Kata’ib Hezbollah and other formations that are believed to be behind attacks against American military assets in Iraq.

Iran denounced the US airstrikes as “aggression” and a “violation of international law”, insisting that the US presence in Syria is illegal. The attack was also condemned by Syrian authorities as a “cowardly aggression” that will “lead to consequences that will escalate the situation in the region”.

President Biden, for his part, said that Thursday’s US airstrikes are a message to Iran: “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful”.

US-Iranian tensions have been in place since then-President Donald Trump announced Washington’s unilateral exit from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018, and the reinstatement of strict economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Exactly a year later, Tehran announced that it had started scaling down some of its JCPOA obligations, including those related to uranium enrichment.

As far as Israel and Iran are concerned, relations between the two sides remain frozen, with Tehran denying the Jewish state’s right to exist and frequently pledging to destroy it.

Over the last few years, Israel has reportedly carried out a number of airstrikes on Syria, which Tel Aviv says are aimed at countering the alleged Iranian military presence in the Arab Republic. Damascus condemns such attacks as violations of Syria’s national sovereignty, while Tehran insists that there are only Iranian military advisers in the country to help the government fight terrorists.


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RUSSIA RETURNS TO POWER GAME IN RED AND ARABIAN SEAS

South Front

For the first time since the collapse of the USSR, Russia is establishing a naval base close to vital maritime supply lines.

The Russian government revealed on November 11 that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved a draft agreement on creating a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit a proposal to the president on signing the document.  The draft deal was submitted by the Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and was preliminarily agreed to by the Sudanese side.

According to the agreement, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.” The base can be used for carrying out repairs and replenishing supplies and for the crewmembers of Russian naval ships to have a rest. The logistics base is expected to embrace the coastal, water and mooring areas.” The Sudanese side has the right to use the mooring area upon agreement with the authorized body of the Russian side,” the document reads.

The text says that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with a nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.” Also, Russia will reportedly deliver weapons and military hardware to Sudan in order maintain the air defense of the Port Sudan area, where the Russian naval facility would be located.

The military-technical and security cooperation between Russia and Sudan has significantly increased since 2017. The creation of the Russian naval base there is a logical step to develop this cooperation. It should be noted that the Russian base in Syria’s Tartus also had the name of a ‘logistical facility’ before it was transformed into a fully-fledged naval base.

If this project is fully implemented, this will contribute to the rapid growth of Russian influence in Africa. Russian naval forces will also be able to increase their presence in the Red Sea and in the area between the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman. Both of these areas are the core of the current maritime energy supply routes. The naval facility will allow Russians to resupply their naval group in the region more effectively and increase the strength of their forces. For example, at least one Russian naval group regularly operates as a part of the anti-piracy mission near Somalia and in the Indian Ocean in general.

The new base will also serve as a foothold of Russia in the case of a standoff with naval forces of NATO member states that actively use their military infrastructure in Djibouti to project power in the region. The increased presence of the Russians in the Red Sea is also a factor that could affect the Saudi-Houthi conflict. If the Russian side opts to indirectly support the Iranian-Houthi coalition, the situation for the Saudi Kingdom will become even more complicated. Its operations to block and pressure the Houthi-controlled port of al-Hudaydah would become much less effective.

It is expected that the United States (regardless of the administration in the White House) will try to prevent the Russian expansion in the region at any cost. For an active foreign policy of Russia, the creation of the naval facility in Sudan surpasses all public and clandestine actions in Libya in recent years. From the point of view of protecting Russian national interests in the Global Oceans, this step is even more important than the creation of the permanent air and naval bases in Syria.

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انتفاضة في البحارعلى القطبية الأميركيّة!

ديسمبر 27, 2019

د. وفيق إبراهيم

المناورات البحرية الضخمة التي تجريها روسيا والصين وإيران في مياه المحيط الهندي وبحر عمان لها طابع استراتيجي يطوق الأحاديّة الأميركيّة دافعاً بها نحو نظام دولي جديد ميزته أنه متعدّد الأقطاب.

صحيح أن هذا التحوّل المرتقب ليس ناتجاً من انتصارات عسكرية مباشرة بين المتنافسين، لكنها ثمرة صراعات اقتصادية وأخرى نشبت بين روسيا وأميركا عبر نظام قيادة الحروب من الخلف أو بتدخل نسبي مباشر.

هناك العديد من الأسباب تجعل لهذه المناورات أهمية في الصراعات الأساسية في العالم أولها أهمية المشاركين بها الذي يعلنون من خلالها أنهم انتقلوا من التساند اللفظي والآني إلى تنسيق عسكري عميق له مدى عالمي بالإضافة الى أهمية المكان الذي تجري فيه المناورات لاحتوائه على أكبر كمية معروفة من احتياطات الغاز والنفط مع قدرة هائلة على الاستهلاك لأن دولها غير منتجة. الى جانب توسُّط منطقة المناورات في الشرق الأوسط والهند وباكستان للعالم بأسره. كما يمكن اعتبار هذه المنطقة قلب العالم الروحي حيث مهد الإسلام والمسيحية واليهودية والبوذية، ومنطقة عبور بحري، بأبوابه الأربعة من هرمز الى المحيط الهندي من جهة وباب المندب وقناة السويس والبحر المتوسط من جهة ثانية.

هي اذاً مناورات بحرية تقتفي نظرية “دبلوماسية الأساطيل” التي تقوم على مناورات عنيفة لعرض قوة كامنة يجب أن تظهر لإقناع الأعداء بقوتها.

بماذا يمكن لهذه البلدان أن تسند بعضها بعضاً؟

تتعرّض روسيا والصين وإيران لعدوانية أميركية اقتصادية تدرك حدود الخنق. فالصين المنتشرة اقتصادياً على مستوى العالم تتلقى كل أسبوع أو أكثر عقوبات أميركية اقتصادية لشلّ انتشار سلعها وعرقلة شرائها لمواد ضرورية لإنتاج بضائعها، كما أن الأميركيين يستعينون بالمراكز الإسلامية التقليدية والإرهابية في الشرق الأوسط لتحريك أقلية الأيغور الإسلامية في الصين ضد دولتها.

لروسيا ايضاً حسابات كبرى عند الأميركيين، يكفي أنها لا تزال قطباً عسكرياً عالمياً يضارع الأميركيين وربما أكثر، لذلك تذهب موسكو عن تسويق ثرواتها من الغاز عن اوروبا والصين عبر أربعة خطوط من البلطيق – المانيا – روسيا اوكرانيا، روسيا الصين وروسيا تركيا نحو أوروبا. ولا تنسى بذل جهود جبارة لتحديث صناعاتها، وهذا يتطلب وقتاً، فتستغله بالانتشار العسكري والسياسي في العالم من مركزها الأساسي في سورية الى أميركا اللاتينية والخليج والعراق ومصر مع محاولات لاختراق شمالي افريقيا.

بما يؤكد أنها تريد توسيع الجيوبوليتيك الخاص بها لاستعادة قطبيتها المفقودة مع الراحل السوفياتي.

اما إيران فهي الثالثة المستهدفة بجنون أميركي لم يدخر أسلوباً للقضاء على جمهوريتها الاسلامية، واذا كانت لا تشكل خطراً عسكرياً او اقتصادياً على الأميركيين، فإنها تجسّد لهم رعباً في عرينهم الشرق الأوسطي حيث الغاز والنفط والجيوبوليتيك، فطهران اليوم موجودة سياسياً في لبنان وعلى كل المستويات في اليمن والعراق وسورية، ولها أدوار وازنة في افغانستان وباكستان، مع علاقات عميقة بدول في أميركا اللاتينية والهند وآسيا وتيارات شعبية في أفريقيا، ما يجعلها في دائرة رصد استراتيجي أميركي يرى فيها تهديداً إسلامياً لهيمنة واشنطن على العالم الاسلامي، حيث مركز القوة الأميركي الاساسي.

لماذا ضرورة التنسيق بين هذه الدول الثلاث؟

السبب المركزي الأول أنها مستهدفة من الأميركيين بشكل بنيوي قد تُركز السياسة الأميركية على روسيا حيناً مقابل التخفيف من خنق الصين وإيران، أو تخنق إيران وتتراخى مع موسكو وبكين، لكنها لا تنسى أبداً الخطر الاقتصادي الصيني الذي أصبح وسواس الاقتصاد الأميركي.

لجهة السبب الثاني الدافع للتنسيق العميق فهو افتقار كل دولة من الدول الثلاث بمفردها لكامل عناصر القوة الضرورية لمقاومة العدوانية الأميركية، فالصين معتدلة عسكرياً ومتقدمة اقتصادياً فيما روسيا رهيبة عسكرياً ومتراجعة اقتصادياً أما إيران فأهميتها اقتصادية وشرق أوسطية وإسلامية.

لذلك تبدو هذه الدول بحاجة لتنسيق قواها فتصبح قادرة على فرض تراجع بنيوي على الأميركيين يؤدي فوراً لولادة عالم متعدّد القطب تنخفض فيه الصراعات والحروب على الطريقة الأميركية التي لا يهمها إلا بيع السلع والسلاح على جثث الأبرياء والشعوب الضعيفة.

إن ما يمنح هذه الفرضيّة ميزات إضافية، بنجاح ممكن في ردع الأميركيين هي القوة السكانية الصينية التي تشكل بمفردها ربع العالم تقريباً بمدى اقتصادي اخترق الحدود السياسية في القارات الخمس، كذلك روسيا راعية تحالفات شنغهاي والبريكس التي تضمّ دولاً تزيد عن 60 في المئة من سكان العالم.

بالعودة الى المناورات البحرية التي تعطي الفرصة بولادة التوازن العالم، يكفي أنها تجري في منطقة تستوطن الجيوبوليتيك الأميركي منذ ستة عقود تقريباً.

ويمكن اعتبارها المدخل البحري إلى أكبر آبار نفط وغاز في العالم وتسيطر على بحار الشرق الأوسط من الخليج الى الأحمر فالمتوسط، وصولاً الى شواطئ باكستان والهند.

هل نحن فعلاً عشية التغيير القطبي؟

استناداً الى القراءة العلمية الدقيقة يمكن الجزم ان العالم مندفع نحو إعادة استقرار نسبي الى ربوعه تحت ضغط هذه المنافسة الثلاثية للنفوذ الأميركي.وكما قال الرئيس الفرنسي ماكرون فإن عالماً متعدّد القطب في طريقه للتشكل من روسيا والصين والأميركيين وأوروبا مجتمعة، وربما تلحق بهم الهند، أما العرب فمستمرون على حالهم من الضعف الشديد الذي يضعهم دائماً ضحية صراعات الأمم على ثرواتهم وتحت رحمة أنظمتهم المتضعضعة.

فيديوات متعلقة

ما هي أهداف المناورات البحرية المشتركة الايرانية الروسية الصينية؟
للمرة الأولى مناورات مشتركة بين ايران روسيا والصين
بدء مناورات بحرية إيرانية روسية صينية
Russia, China & Iran hold FIRST joint navy drills in Gulf of Oman

مواضيع متعلقة

US Reportedly Finds ‘Significant Cache’ of Iranian Missile Parts Being Smuggled to Houthis by Boat

An Iranian woman looks at Taer-2 missile during a street exhibition by Iran's army and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard celebrating Defence Week marking the 39th anniversary of the start of 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, at the Baharestan Square in Tehran, on September 26, 2019

Source

Anonymous US officials reported the seizure of a “significant cache” of missile parts by a US destroyer in the Gulf of Oman last week, with the weapons reportedly being linked to Iran and suspected of being smuggled to the Houthis in Yemen. The report comes amid backroom peace talks to end the war in Yemen.

The USS Forrest Sherman seized missile parts found onboard a boat in the Gulf of Oman last week, an anonymous US official told the Associated Press Wednesday. The official said the weapons were linked to Iran and believed to be bound for Yemen and the Shiite Houthi militant movement there.

The anonymous official did not say how many missiles or parts were found, only that a small wooden boat had aroused US suspicion by not flying a country flag, prompting the destroyer to stop and search it.

‘Fake and Fabricated’ Accusations

The US and its allies have accused Tehran of supporting the Houthi movement before, claiming Iran is fighting a proxy war against its regional rival Saudi Arabia, which has waged a bloody war in Yemen against the Houthis for nearly five years.

In December 2017, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley presented what she called the “smoking gun” of Iranian support for the Houthis: pieces of a missile fired at Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid International Airport just outside the capital of Riyadh, which she claimed were of Iranian origin.

Iran’s envoy to the UN at the time, Gholamali Khoshroo, said the accusations were “fake and fabricated,” an attitude generally shared at the time even by US allies. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, later explained the Houthis had overhauled older missiles themselves, turning them into more potent weapons.

Washington renewed the accusation in June 2019 following the downing of a US drone over Yemen by Houthi forces. The US said the anti-air missile that struck the drone had been provided to the Houthis by Iran, but as Sputnik reported, the old, Soviet-made weapon was sold to dozens of nations decades ago and could have been bought anywhere.

US allies split in September over the issue of who carried out the aerial attack on two Saudi Aramco petroleum sites in eastern Saudi Arabia: Washington claimed the missiles were fired from Iran, while Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz claimed the Houthis carried out the attack, as the group itself claimed, but at Tehran’s orders.

The Houthis have been fighting a war against the Saudi-led coalition since March 2015, when the group forced Yemeni President Adrabbuh Mansur Hadi out of office. The Zaidi Shiite group represented a diverse alliance of Yemenis disaffected by Hadi’s federalization plans and slashing of state welfare benefits, both of which hit the northern border areas the Houthis call home extremely hard. The Saudis claim to be defending the Yemeni government’s sovereignty, but they and their chief partners, the United Arab Emirates, have also found erstwhile allies in the radical Islamist militias active in Yemen, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which now controls much of the country’s southeast.

Via Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, US weapons have been found in the hands of these militias in large numbers, including American MRAP anti-mine vehicles, French LeClerc main battle tanks and Agrab Mk2s, a unique vehicle of South African design.

Peace Deal in the Works

Sputnik reported last week on peace talks between the Houthis and Saudis being quietly hosted by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Muscat and accompanied by large prisoner exchanges.

Former Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told Foreign Policy that handling of the peace talks by Saudi Vice Minister of Defence Prince Khalid bin Salman, brother of de facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reflected “a commitment to a final comprehensive peace … and a realization that there is no military solution to the conflict. I believe Prince KBS hopefully has come with a new vision to put an end to a costly war which has created great regional stability.”

“The war has exhausted Saudi Arabia financially, and the worsening military situation in its south is not in its best interest,” Nabeel Khoury, the former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Sana’a, told the US-based outlet Al-Monitor for an article published on November 26. “The fact that Prince Khalid has been assigned the Yemeni dossier is positive because it is a complicated issue and it needs a full-time decision-maker who Mohammed bin Salman trusts.”

An estimated 91,000 Yemenis have died as a result of the war, most of them civilians killed by the humanitarian catastrophe created by shortages of food, medicine and clean water. Despite the Saudi air campaign, the Houthis have gone on the offensive in the last year, conducting deeper strikes inside Saudi Arabia that targeted airfields, petroleum facilities and other sites.

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