A U.S. warship has begun shadowing an Iranian cargo ship approaching the coast of Yemen with Iranian military escorts, raising concerns it could be delivering weapons for Houthi rebels in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, Defense Department officials said.
Iran says the cargo ship, "Iran Shahed," is carrying humanitarian relief to war-torn Yemen. It is being accompanied by a pair of Iranian warships, the “Vosper” and “Bandar Abbas.”
The Iranian government has publicly announced the cargo ship intends to deliver its shipment directly to Yemen and ignore U.N. demands that all relief shipments for Yemen first be delivered to a U.N. inspection station in nearby Djibouti.
But it’s not yet certain whether the U.S. or other coalition warships will attempt to intercept the Iranian vessel. For now, the amphibious U.S. helicopter carrier “Iwo Jima” is monitoring its movements.
U.S. officials suspect the Iranian ship may in fact be carrying relief supplies and not weapons and are attempting to draw the U.S. and coalition warships into a confrontation at sea.
According to the officials, there’s evidence that for “propaganda purposes” a number of “international observers” may be aboard the Iranian cargo ship prepared to document any attempt to board and search the Iranian vessel only to find no weapons on board.
On the other hand, to allow the ship free passage into Yemen without an inspection could set a “dangerous precedent” for future shipments.
Officials said no final decision had been made on the U.S. response.
Yemen's dominant Houthi group recently accepted a five-day humanitarian ceasefire proposed by its adversary Saudi Arabia but said it would respond to any violations of the pause. Neighboring Saudi Arabia had previously said that the ceasefire could begin if the Iranian-allied militia agreed to the pause, which would let in badly needed food and medical supplies.
Backed by the United States, a Saudi-led coalition has been conducting air strikes against the Houthis and army units loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh since March 26 with the aim of restoring the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Pentagon spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren previously said that if the ship is carrying humanitarian aid, the U.S. encourages the Iranians to deliver it to the United Nations aid distribution hub in Djibouti. He added that if the Iranians are "planning some sort of stunt," that would be "unhelpful" and could threaten the ceasefire.
Warren said that providing warships to escort a single ship carrying aid is "not necessary." He added that the Iranians moved a much larger convoy several weeks ago and "provoked tensions."
Warren would not discuss a possible U.S. response if the ship tries to dock in Yemen.
—Jim Miklaszewsk, Courtney Kube and Jon Schuppe