That incident only came to light on Tuesday, after the IRGC naval forces fired a warning shot across the bow of a ship sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands and captured it as it was sailing along recognized international trade routes. Together, the two incidents showcase amplified belligerence toward the West from among hardline elements of the Iranian regime, possibly driven in this case by a backlash against Arab and American confrontation of Iran’s influence in Yemen.
Last week, American warships were dispatched to the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden to support Saudi-led actions against the Iranian backed Houthi militants who control the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The American ships joined a Saudi blockade in enforcing a UN-ordered embargo on arms shipments to Yemen. Several Iranian ships that were carrying weapons described by the Pentagon as “larger than small arms” were shadowed by the US vessels and forced to divert from their planned course to the port city of Aden.
Friday’s IRGC aggression came as the Iranian ships were still seeking a clear path to deliver their weapons, and the interception of the US-flagged vessel seemed to mimic the actions of the blockade ships. This week’s seizure of the Marshall Islands cargo ship was initially reported as the seizure of an American ship, and while those reports have been denied, Arutz Sheva points out that the ship is owned largely and perhaps entirely, by US investors.
It is uncertain whether the IRGC naval forces were aware of this, but according to CNN, Iran claimed that the seizure was justified by a court order stemming from an outstanding commercial conflict with the ship. It is thus possible that the seizure was an indirectly punitive based on the ship’s connections to US economic interests.
In any event, the escalation of Iranian naval aggression in the wake of confrontations spurred by its adversaries makes clear that the Islamic Republic is not backing down from its role in the crisis surrounding Yemen. Indeed, WND reported on Monday that Iran appeared to have enlisted Russian vessels to maneuver in such a way as to try to put distance between the Iranian arms shipments and the US warships that were shadowing them.
Furthermore, confrontations in the skies over Yemen may indicate that Iran remains committed to making arms shipments to the Houthi by that means, as well. Dawn reported on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had bombed the runway of the Sanaa airport to prevent an Iranian aircraft from landing after it refused to turn back. The Iranians claimed that the plane was carrying food and medical goods, but the IRGC is known to sometimes use supposed aid shipments and legitimate exports to conceal weapons.
While the possibility of such secretive Iranian interventions are being actively confronted in Yemen, much less is being done to counteract similar influence in other parts of the region including Iraq and Syria, where Iranian opposition to ISIL militants has prompted the US to effectively offer indirect support to the Islamic Republic and its proxies.
In the midst of this situation, Iranian interventions are arguably becoming bolder and in some places more desperate. Reuters reports that on Tuesday Syrian Defense Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij began a visit with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Dehghan. Iranian news agency SANA reports that the meeting was explicitly aimed at strengthening ties between the two nation’s armies – implying existing or intended direct intervention in Syria by Iranian military forces.
If this is not already to modus operandi in Syria, the escalation may be viewed as desperate in light of the claim by several analysts – most recently Steven Horowitz writing in the Times of Israel – that a recent Sunni surge appears to have put the Assad regime on its last legs. Between this and the stonewalling of Iranian influence in Yemen, there is reason to assume that the IRGC and other hardline forces desire to make a stronger push to counteract these perceived defeats, either through military action or through military propaganda.