Jabal al-Tair (literally Bird Mountain Island) is a roughly oval volcanic island northwest of the tight Bab a-Mandab passageway at the mouth of the Red Sea, about midway between Yemen and Eritrea. It is some 500m wide and still growing. In December 2011, this mass of lava broke through the water’s surface and began to take shape.
The two watchtowers and small military station which Yemen maintained on the island until now are the nucleus around which Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Navy are setting up a base with the help of Hizballah, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose.
Jabal al-Tair belongs to one of the strategic Red Sea island clusters which Tehran is taking over as a more useful option, for the time being, than direct seizure of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait. (Click HERE to see full-size map)
In Geneva, meanwhile, Monday, June 15, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened a conference for negotiating a Yemen ceasefire in Yemen. He warned that the country was “a ticking bomb,” while the Red Cross spoke of a human catastrophe in Yemen’s main cities after 80 days of aerial bombardment by the Saudi-led anti-insurgency coalition and 2,000 dead.
The Yemeni rebels’ plane left Sanaa Sunday afternoon to attend the conference, but was delayed in Djibouti for nearly 24 hours. They blamed Egypt and Sudan for not allowing their plane to transit their air space.
But when they did arrive, they refused to talk with representatives of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government. “We refuse any dialogue with those who have no legitimacy,” rebel member Mohammad Zubairi declared, and demanded talks instead with Saudi Arabia.
Houthi fighters and heavy weapons unloaded on Red Sea islands
The bickering in Geneva was no more than background chatter for Iran’s island-grabbing offensive in the Red Sea. By planting armed forces on enough of those islands, Tehran is in position to threaten the western seaboard of Saudi Arabia, turn the stretch of water north of Bab el-Mandeb into a potential obstacle course for international shipping plying the East-West route via the Suez Canal – including oil tankers – and blockade Israeli and Jordanian ports.
A group of IRGC, Iranian navy and Hizballah officers this week set about striking camp on the Bird Mountain Island cluster, as small fishing boats and larger vessels ferried Houti rebel fighters from the Yemeni coast. The boats then picked up heavy weapons, including artillery batteries and anti-air guns and missiles that were dropped by Iranian freighters anchored out at sea.
The Saudis suspect that sea-to-sea missiles were part of the shipment.
The same operation was repeated on the larger Zubayr group further south and closer to the strategic straits.
Zubayr is the largest and one of 10 younger volcanic islands lying atop a shield volcano protruding 191 meters (627ft) above sea level. Other young islands are Center Peak, Saba, Haycock and Saddle.
Saddle had its last underwater eruption on Sept. 28, 2013 lasting until October. It sent a large plume of steam into the air which was observed by satellite.
Houthis make inroads on Saudi coastal towns of Jizan and Najran
Houthi fighters and heavy armaments were scattered on these islands, including Kamaran, the largest Yemen-controlled Red Sea island.
With an area of 108 sq. km, Kamaran is located just 172 km from the southwestern Saudi town of Jizan; Bird Mountain is even closer – 169 km away and the Zubayr group, 209 km. Their occupation poses a direct threat to Saudi coastal towns, at a time that inland, the Saudi army has not managed to repel Houthi ground incursions of the towns of Najran and Jizan for setting up hostile military enclaves inside the kingdom.
The Yemeni Kamaran group lies opposite the Eritrean Dahlak Archipelago near Massawa on the eastern shore of the Red Sea and consists of two large and 124 small islands.
Asmara granted the Iranian Navy a naval supply base on the archipelago some years ago. A distance of 260 km separates this base from the occupied Yemeni islands.
These islands give Tehran powerful leverage over international shipping on the critical Red Sea route, without its having to directly intrude on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The Iranians have therefore saved President Barack Obama from being put on the spot by his pledge to uphold “the freedom of traffic in international sea lanes,” including the Bab el-Mandeb.
Riyadh is sending bombers against the new Iranian-Houthi island strongholds. So far, Saudi Arabia has not gained the advantage in its campaign against the Houthi insurgency. But King Salman is unlikely to give ground in ceasefire negotiations while his kingdom stands under a direct Iranian military threat.