A top Iranian military commander warned Saudi Arabia against blocking a cargo ship with aid sent by his country to Yemen, raising tensions in a key shipping route.
Attempts to prevent aid from reaching Yemen could start “an uncontrollable fire,” the Arabic-language Al-Alam TV reported, citing an interview with Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of Iran’s armed forces. The Saudi-led coalition against Yemen’s Shiite rebels has imposed a naval blockade on the country’s ports.
Iran’s navy said Tuesday that it was escorting a shipment of food, medicines and drinking water to Yemen after more than a month of Saudi-led airstrikes. The 2,500 tons of aid is expected to arrive at Yemen’s northern Red Sea port of Hodeidah May 20, Iran’s national television news reported.
The conflict in Yemen has strained already tense ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have traditionally been on opposite ends of conflicts in the Middle East. The kingdom began bombing Yemen’s Houthi rebels in March, accusing them of being tools of Iran, a charge they deny.
Yemen’s internationally recognized government, now in exile in Saudi Arabia after it was driven from the country by the Houthis, warned the Iranian ship against entering Yemeni waters without its permission. In a letter to the United Nations, the government said all aid must be coordinated with the Saudi-led coalition that’s bombing the rebels and blockading Yemeni ports, Al Arabiya television said.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries will view Iran’s move as an escalation, Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, said by phone.
“This feeds into all the underlying Saudi fears that have motivated their intervention in Yemen,” Kinninmont said. Saudi Arabia will be concerned that instead of hauling aid, the ship could transfer arms to the Houthis, she said.
A Saudi-proposed five-day humanitarian truce took effect Tuesday night. Yet clashes persisted in southern Yemen, where some cities are still controlled by pro-Saudi forces.
Naser Bajanoub, who heads Humanitarian Solidarity Society, an aid group working with the United Nations World Food Programme, said by phone that the cease-fire breach had delayed a WFP ship from traveling from Hodeidah to Aden. Humanitarian groups have warned of severe shortages of food and medicine.
Game of Chicken
Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates minister of state for foreign affairs, said at a conference in Dubai on Wednesday that the coalition aims to scale back Iran’s influence, though he didn’t address Iranian shipments.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran won’t allow those involved in Yemen’s war to inspect the vessel carrying aid to country, Tehran-based Tasnim news agency said.
If Saudi Arabia demands an inspection, however, tensions could flare up into “a very serious game of military chicken as to who backs away first,” said Scott Lucas, a professor of international relations at Birmingham University in the U.K. and an Iran analyst.
Gulf Arab leaders are meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at Camp David in Maryland on Thursday.