Iran sends battleships to Yemen amid standoff with Saudis

Move comes as Sunni coalition converges on Tehran-backed Shiite rebels who conquered much of the country

Illustrative: An Iranian navy vessel launches a missile during a drill in the Sea of Oman, in January 2012. (AP/ISNA, Amir Kholousi)
Illustrative: An Iranian navy vessel launches a missile during a drill in the Sea of Oman, in January 2012. (AP/ISNA, Amir Kholousi)

Iran dispatched a naval destroyer and another vessel Wednesday to waters near Yemen, ratcheting up tensions with Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition to quash a Shiite rebellion. The rebels, back by Iran, have deposed the US-backed Sunni leader and captured large swaths of territory in the embattled country in recent months.

Iran’s Chief of the Judiciary Sadeq Amoli Larijani warned Saudi Arabia to stop its “aggression” against Yemen or wait for “dire consequences.

“This blatant aggression of a government which claims [to be leading] Islam, against the Muslim people of another country who want to decide their fate will not remain unanswered,” Larijani told the Fars News Agency, referring to Saudi Arabia.

“When naive individual decisions are made in a country that doesn’t have the least experience of democracy, has no parliament and no elections — the result will be the aggression of a state that claims to be the leader of Islam to another Muslim nation,” he said.

Iran’s English-language state broadcaster Press TV quoted Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari as saying the ships would be part of an anti-piracy campaign “safeguarding naval routes for vessels in the region.”

The maneuver comes amid an intense Saudi-led Gulf Arab air campaign targeting the Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, who come from a Shiite sect. Critics say Shiite power Iran backs the Houthis, though both the Islamic Republic and the rebels deny any direct military assistance.

Speaking a day earlier in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken blamed the violence in Yemen on the Houthis and on forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, saying that the US is committed to defending Saudi Arabia.

“We have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination and planning cell in the Saudi operations center,” he said in a statement to reporters after meeting with Saudi royals and Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled his country amid rebel advances.

Intelligence sharing includes making available raw aerial imagery the coalition could use to better strike anti-Hadi forces, said a US defense official who was not authorized to comment publicly. Blinken said the US and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council must coordinate closely and press all parties to seek a political solution.

The Gulf Arab-backed air campaign supporting Hadi, which began on March 26, has so far failed to stop the Houthis’ advance on Aden, Yemen’s second-largest city, which was declared the provisional capital by Hadi before he fled.

The US says that the chaos has allowed the local al-Qaeda branch, which it considers the world’s most dangerous wing of the group, to make “great gains” on the ground, prompting Washington to rethink how it prevents it from launching attacks in the West.

Speaking from Tokyo, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the collapse of the central government in Yemen makes it harder to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, which has ambitions to strike Western targets, including the United States. Regarding the weapons deliveries, he said it involved “some resupply of equipment and munitions” to Saudi Arabia.

The World Health Organization warned Tuesday of an unfolding humanitarian crisis, saying at least 560 people, including dozens of children, have been killed, mostly in the air campaign and ground battles. The aid group said that over 1,700 people have been wounded and another 100,000 have fled their homes as fighting has intensified over the past three weeks.

The first boat carrying medical aid to Yemen since the coalition began bombing arrived in the southern port city of Aden on Wednesday, international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said.

The group’s head of mission in Yemen, Marie-Elisabeth Ingres, said the ship carried some 2.5 tons of supplies from Djibouti for its hospital in Aden.

The group is concerned about how it will transport the supplies and wounded people given the chaos in Aden’s streets, where the situation continues to deteriorate and combat intensifies overnight.

“We have street fighting, snipers, tanks in the street, roads cut and areas not accessible, and electricity, water and fuel cuts,” she said. “Last night the different groups were fighting around the hospital. It lasted all night into the morning and continues now, so all our employees were forced to sleep at the hospital.”

Tons of desperately needed aid awaits clearance to be flown into Yemen, including a Red Cross shipment with 17 tons of medical supplies from Jordan, which emergency workers hope can be flown into the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, on Wednesday. Another 35 tons of supplies were also ready for shipment.

Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch cited witnesses as saying that Houthi forces fired into crowds of demonstrators in the cities of Taiz and Torba the day before the bombing campaign began, killing at least 7 people and wounding over 80 others. The New York-based group called on Houthi authorities to investigate the incidents.

“Yemen’s spiraling conflict is causing a calamitous breakdown in law and order,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces in control, whatever side they are on, have responsibilities to uphold and protect people’s rights and to take action against their members who commit abuses.”

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