The curtain went up on the first scene of the Yemeni Sea Spectacle Monday, April 20, when the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier was reported heading for waters opposite Yemen, at the peak of the Saudi air operation against the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. The carrier nicknamed the Big Stick was officially said to be joining American ships already there and preparing to intercept any Iranian vessels carrying weapons for the Houthis.
A convoy of some 9 Iranian warships was steaming toward the same destination.
Headlines in Western and Iranian media blared warnings that the American warships were there to prevent the Iranian vessels breaking the Saudi-Egyptian naval blockade on the Yemeni shores.
The Iranian armada was described by US sources as composed of seven cargo vessels loaded with arms for the Yemeni rebels and two frigates of the Iranian Navy.
American sources expressed alarm that an Iranian attempt to breach the blockade would spark an armed clash with US, Saudi and Egyptian forces.
US and Iran apprised each other of their naval movements
Ten days after this crisis sputtered out, high-ranking Gulf intelligence sources confided to DEBKA Weekly information they had received that the US and Iran had faked this near-clash from start to finish. To make sure the game did not lurch off track by mistake, Washington forewarned Tehran of the Roosevelt’s dispatch to the Gulf of Aden with a cover story.
One source claimed that President Barack Obama had called President Hassan Rouhani and assuref him that the Roosevelt was on a routine mission to relieve the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group after its seven-month stint in the Gulf of Aden.
Other sources said the call was made by US Secretary of State John Kelly to Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
But Saudi and United Arab Emirate intelligence officials agreed that the US Fifth Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain and Revolutionary Guards Navy headquarters in Bandar Abbas had kept each other abreast through back-channels of their respective fleet’s precise movements, to make sure there were no inadvertent glitches.
Their mistrust is said to have kept the Saudi and Egyptian warships patrolling at the nearby Strait of Bab el Mandeb from joining the US fleet in the Gulf.
Neither believed in the spectacle of the two hostiles fleets sailing toward a head-on clash over Yemen.
The Mersk Tigris incident was Act II of the same spectacle
Their suspicions were confirmed Thursday, April 23, when Pentagon officials reported that the nine Iranian vessels had turned around and were heading away from Yemen towards Iran. The officials added that the Iranian armada was being closely monitored by the warships of four nations, the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Some of those US officials cautioned, “This isn’t over yet,” and said that the Roosevelt and the USS Normandy guided missile cruiser would continue to track the Iranian convoy.
Gulf watchers were now sure that all these naval movements had been carefully choreographed.
As one Gulf source put it: Tehran knew exactly when the Roosevelt would arrive in the Gulf of Aden, just as Washington knew to the day and hour when the Iranian vessels would turn around and make for home base.
Gulf intelligence watchers regarded the reported Iranian naval seizure of the Maersk Tigris cargo ship near the Strait of Hormuz as the continuation of the game playing out between Washington and Tehran.
President Obama had declared the mission of the Roosevelt in the Gulf of Aden at the outset of the episode to be to secure shipping rights in international waters.
With the unexplained Maersk Tigris incident, Tuesday, April 28, the Gulf was sure the second shoe had dropped.
Two imperial powers divide the region’s waters between them
This cargo ship was described as having been encircled by at least five Iranian patrol boats and forced to sail to the Revolutionary Guards naval base at Bandar Abbas. Although it was on a voyage from the Saudi port of Jeddah to Jebel Ali in Dubai, flying a Marshall Islands flag, under charter by a company based in Hamburg and owned by the Maersk Danish shipping and trading conglomerate, no one in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Washington was able to identify its cargo.
And up until now, the ship is still being held at Bandar Abbas without explanation.
This is how the story appeared to the Gulf intelligence sources talking to DEBKA Weekly:
1. The Obama administration transferred the Roosevelt and strike group from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden to lay down a marker. It warned Iran against operating outside its own Gulf waters and Strait of Hormuz and informed Tehran that the US fleet was responsible for defending the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea to the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.
2. Someone in Tehran decided to reciprocate for the American demonstration of strength by laying down an Iranian marker in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. This was achieved by seizing “an American ship” in its waters.
Iran wants more – Bab el-Mandeb as well as Hormuz
Commenting on the commandeering of the Danish container ship Wednesday, April 29, the Iranian foreign minister said that for Iran, "the Persian Gulf is our lifeline and nothing is more important than freedom of navigation in those waters."
DEBKA Weekly’s Farsi translation: This waterway and its security are under our control. We therefore decide who is allowed to use it.
Seen from the Gulf, the two imperial powers made a deal to carve up the waters and strategic straits of the region between them without a by-your-leave to its indigenous nations.
But that was not the end of it. Chapter three was yet to come. Seeing it got away with commandeering a Western cargo ship without raising a ruckus, Tehran capitalized on this non-reaction by a move to extend its show of muscle in Hormuz over to the Gulf of Aden.
Thursday, April 30, the Iranian Navy sent two destroyers, the Alborz and Bushehr, to the entrance of the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, between Yemen and Djibouti. Iranian Navy chief Rear Adm, Habibollah Sayari announced: "We are present in the Gulf of Aden in accordance with international regulations to ensure the safety of commercial ships of our country against the threat of pirates.”