As US President Barack Obama sat down with high Gulf officials at Camp David Thursday, May 15, to discuss Iran’s expansionist threat to their security, two warships of Iran’s 34th Fleet escorted the Nejat (Rescue) cargo ship as it sailed toward the rebel-held Yemeni port of Hodeida.
A US Navy official commented: “Iran is begging for us to board the ship. This is all for show!”
He was clearly unimpressed by the warning issued Wednesday, May 13, by Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, that attacking the aid ship, which was said to carry 2,500 tons of food, medical supplies and tents, would “ignite the flames of war” in the region. “I clearly announce that the self-restraint of the Islamic Republic of Iran has its limits,” said the Iranian general.
This was Tehran’s response to the Pentagon’s dismissal of the Iranian aid initiative as "unhelpful and unnecessary" and advice to change course and unload aid at Djibouti.
As he spoke the Iranian warships escorting the Nejat were joined by US vessels.
Saudi Arabia, which has imposed an air and sea blockade on Yemen against the delivery of Iranian arms for its Yemeni proxies, the Houthi rebels and military defectors, has stayed out of the war of words between Washington and Tehran.
The Iranian ship messed up the Gulf summit’s agenda
But Wednesday night, Iran complained to the United Nations Security Council over the Saudi blockade, while the Defense Ministry in Tehran denounced the US as “an accomplice of war criminals” and of “genocide."
The unnamed US Navy official may have got it right when he called the incident a “show.” Maybe in the last reckoning, neither the US fleet nor the Saudi or Egyptian navy vessels parked opposite Hodeida will attempt to board the Iranian ship or detain it by force.
But however it pans out, this high-wire incident staged by Tehran, messed up the agenda of President Obama’s Gulf summit in Maryland. Instead of a productive dialogue on future US-Gulf relations, the meeting further exacerbated the rift.
On May 8, DEBKA Weekly 662 reported:
The Revolutionary Guards high command and top Iranian government officials already have plans in place for the contingency of an American’s destroyers’ demand to inspect the freight of one of the Iranian vessels or a US Marines attempt to board a ship to search for illicit weapons. IRGC commanders have resolved that if President Hassan Rouhani makes substantial nuclear concessions to win sanctions relief, then Iranian battleships will stage a violent showdown with the US fleet. An American response to this provocation would ratchet the clash up to a state of war – and terminate nuclear diplomacy.
Khamenei is pressing Obama to step up public support for Iran
By turning up the heat off Yemen’s shores on the day of Obama’s encounter with Gulf rulers, Tehran was sending a two-part message:
1. There would be no tolerance for accords between Washington and the Gulf setting the rules for the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden and their strategic Straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb. Tehran not only demands full partnership in determining those rules but the last word.
2. Tehran is not satisfied with Obama’s demonstration of preference for the Shiite case over Sunni interests in the Middle East. The ship episode is taxing the US President to make the hard choice of coming down publicly on the side of Tehran and against Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian and intelligence sources attribute these provocations less to the infighting between moderates and extremists in the Iranian regime – as most Western media assume – and more to the ulterior motives of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some months ago, US intelligence determined that he was resolved to derail any chance of a US-Iranian nuclear accord.
One source described him as suffering from “conspiracy paranoia,” seeming to believe that President Obama will end up cheating Tehran and order a military attack on the Islamic Republic as soon as the nuclear deal is in the bag. His pretext will be putative Iranian violations of their commitments.
Khamenei catches Obama on the horns of a quandary
According to some intelligence sources, Khamenei is also convinced that American hands are behind the Saudi offensive against the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, while at the same time posing as would-be peacemakers.
The Iranian ruler has found support for his suspicions in Iraq. After Washington used pro-Iranian Shiite militias to recapture the Sunni town of Tikrit from the Islamic State in the latter half of March, the Americans no longer turn to Tehran and act as though they no longer require Iranian military assistance in the war on ISIS. That is the impression received in Tehran.
Iran’s supreme boss claims he has a long list of American swindles and has advised top regime officials to be on their guard against Washington.
The aid ship sent out from Bandar Abbas Monday was rigged as a double trap for the US president, DEBKA Weekly’s analysts find.
If US warships try to board the Nejat (Rescue) to inspection its cargo, Tehran will strike back swiftly in kind against an American cargo vessel in the Persian Gulf. This will instantly cut short the nuclear dialogue. But if Obama instructs the US Navy not to interfere with the Iranian ship and allows it to dock at the Yemeni rebel-held port of Hodeida, he will have to face the music from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. They will accuse him of betraying their security interests after pledging to defend them.