Yemen Ceasefire in Doubt as Iran Pushes Narratives of Military Strength

In Yemen also, the influence of foreign parties is of great consequence to the success or failure of the planned ceasefire. France 24 discussed this in some detail, suggesting that an overall political solution was made much more difficult by the fact that negotiations are currently focused around the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, and not merely around the differences between the Yemeni factions. 

But France 24 also notes that there is a potentially positive side to foreign influence, as agreement upon the current ceasefire was only made possible with the help of pressure from the United States. There are, however, strict limits to how far the US will go to see that that ceasefire is enforced, as the Obama administration remains extremely wary of being drawn into another Middle Eastern war. 

Neither Iran nor the Houthi seem to have quite the same aversion – a fact that threatens both the short-term ceasefire and the long-term persistence of Washington’s reticence. Last weekend, the Iran-backed rebels fired a series of missiles at a US destroyer in the Red Sea. Although the White House was reportedly hesitant to respond, President Obama did approve a cruise missile launch which destroyed three isolated radar stations believed to be used by the Houthi. Iran, in its turn, dispatched two warships to the Gulf of Aden, although the Iranians claimed that this was an effort to protect international shipping lanes from piracy. 

Interestingly, the maritime security website Eagle Speak published an article on Wednesday calling attention to – and ridiculing – Iran’s broader use of piracy as a source of propaganda and an excuse for Iranian naval maneuvers in international waters. The article notes that worldwide statistics show a dramatic decrease in piracy, with attacks from Somali groups reportedly at a 21-year low. But the article adds that this contrasts with Iranian state media, which seems to tease an imminent threat while boasting the ability of Iran’s naval forces to combat it. 

One of the latest instances of this supposed propaganda appeared in Mehr News Agency on Monday and described exchanges of “heavy fire” with “thirteen well-equipped boats” led by Somali pirates somewhere near Yemen. Independent verification of the report’s claims is virtually impossible, and previous trends in Iran’s state media reporting make those claims dubious. Much of that reporting on Iran’s naval activities has presented routine contact with foreign vessels as if they were narrowly averted conflicts during which not just pirates by also American warships were frightened off by Iranian shows of strength. 

In keeping with this narrative, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has recognizably ramped-up the frequency of contacts between its naval forces and those of the US. At the same time, it has made these encounters less routine and more aggressive, resulting in American naval officers condemning them for unprofessional and dangerous behavior. In at least one such case, an IRGC vessel that was apparently practicing “swarm tactic” maneuvers against a US warship refused to depart from a collision course until warning shots were fired into the water. 

It is not always known whether such incidents are reported in Iranian state media, or how they are presented. But it is clear that Iran is keen to find pretense to boast about its readiness for war with the world’s leading superpower. Perhaps the most prominent recent example of this was the IRGC’s seizure of 10 American sailors who had strayed into Iranian waters while on a training mission in the Persian Gulf. Although they were released after less than a day, state media continued to broadcast images of them on their knees at gunpoint, for weeks after the fact. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei later awarded Iran’s highest honors to the IRGC officers involved in the incident, which has been reenacted in Iranian military parades and will reportedly be the basis for a public statue. 

Military parades have also featured the unveiling of new Iranian weapons, including a range of domestically produced missiles like those allegedly provided by the IRGC to the Houthi. The premieres of those weapons often coincide with statements about Iran’s readiness for war, with strong implications that the other combatant in such a war would be the United States. 

This trend in Iranian propaganda was highlighted once again on Wednesday, when the Washington Free Beacon reported upon the three days of drills that had begun the previous day among the Iranian air force. The report quoted Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri as using the outset of the drills to reaffirm Iran’s commitment to ousting American influence from the Middle East. “The presence of America in the region is a cancerous malign tumor that can only be treated by removing the filthy tumor and the ejection of America from the region,” he said. 

The Free Beacon also noted that the drills closely coincided with new Iranian statements accusing the US of violating the spirit of last year’s nuclear deal. Some of those same statements flatly rejected the notion of the Islamic Republic changing any of its behavior for the sake of securing the additional concessions that Iranian officials demand. Iranian Judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani said, for instance, that groups like Hezbollah would continue to receive Iranian support, despite being widely recognized as terrorist organizations by the world community.                                                                                              

Certainly, Tehran maintains an identical sentiment toward the Houthi, even in the wake of attempts by that group to attack the US Navy and threaten international shipping lanes. Wednesday’s ceasefire highlights the threat that that sentiment might pose to regional stability, especially if Iran’s support of the rebels is based primarily on the goal of increasing the appearance of Iranian strength and influence, relative to the US.