The Iran Shahed unloaded its cargo in the port of Djibouti on May 23. From there, the Iranian Red Crescent Society-supplied humanitarian aid will be transported to Yemen by U.N.-chartered vessels. The Iran Shahed's journey is over. But while the ship remains docked in Djibouti, its cargo will likely reach its intended end point. The crew of the Iranian ship talked about security concerns at the destination port of al-Hudaydah affecting the decision to transfer the supplies to other vessels. They referred to the bombing of the port by Saudi-led coalition aircraft and also alleged that a Saudi-backed team was in place to raid the Iran Shahed if it docked in al-Hudaydah, with orders to kill everyone on board. It is more probable that the vessel was unable to get the U.N. and International Committee of the Red Cross to circumvent their inspection procedures. The cargo will be thoroughly searched before it is allowed to proceed onward to Yemen, appeasing the requirements of the Saudi naval blockade in force around the embattled country.
May 22 — Latest Update
Just before 10 p.m. local time (8 p.m. GMT), the Iran Shahed moved into the port of Djibouti and docked. Whatever dispute had prevented the vessel from entering the harbor appears to have been resolved. It now remains to be seen whether the ship will be boarded and inspected before continuing, or whether the Tehran-supplied humanitarian aid will be offloaded. Reports suggest that a United Nations-chartered vessel is available to transport the aid to its destination port of al-Hudaydah in Yemen. No official statements have yet been released indicating the intention of the Iran Shahed or its cargo.
As the sun goes down over the port of Djibouti, the Iran Shahed remains in the exact same position it was in on May 21: moored outside the harbor. There is no indication that inspections have taken place, but statements released by the World Food Program suggest that the organization is operating on the assumption that the humanitarian supplies aboard the Iran Shahed would be transferred to a WFP-chartered vessel and then taken onward to Yemen. The lack of activity or progress made by the vessel could be the result of a disagreement over whether to unload the goods in Djibouti or to board the ship and inspect them there.
One minor incident took place the morning of May 22 but did not involve the Iran Shahed's cargo. One of the foreign activists aboard the ship was detained and questioned by Djiboutian port officials. The man, a German national, was held by Djibouti harbor police for a number of hours, allegedly because his paperwork was not in order. The checking of travel documents is standard practice on international voyages, and the incident is likely unrelated to the Iran Shahed's role or destination. A representative of the German Embassy in Djibouti liaised with the harbor police and the activist was eventually released.
The Iran Shahed arrived at the main port of Djibouti around 6:30 p.m. local time (4:30 p.m. GMT) May 21. The ship stopped just outside the entrance to the harbor, where it laid anchor. The vessel made no attempt to enter the port, nor did any inspectors from the United Nations or Red Cross attempt to come aboard. It is now past midnight in Djibouti and it is unlikely that the Iran Shahed will attempt to dock before sunrise, if it chooses to do so at all. Having internationally recognized officials inspect the vessel will defuse the potential for an incident involving the Iranian-flagged vessel and warships from Saudi Arabia or the United States. Riyadh will not permit any foreign vessels in Yemeni territorial waters without them being boarded and searched first. If the Iran Shahed continues on its voyage, it will take at least 24 hours to reach its destination port of al-Hudaydah. Should it attempt to run the Saudi blockade without submitting to a mandatory search, the possibility of an international incident at sea remains.
The reversal of the ship toward Djibouti will prevent a particularly sensitive standoff and will enable the involved parties to step down without losing face. After undergoing inspection by U.N. or Red Cross officials in Djibouti, the Iran Shahed would be able to dock at a Yemeni port and deliver its aid cargo without being intercepted, stopped or boarded by Saudi or U.S. naval forces. The Saudis, for their part, will not have to choose between intercepting the vessel and maintaining the legitimacy of their naval blockade on Yemen, since the Iran Shahed will have been inspected by a neutral party.
However, under conditions imposed as part of the Saudi-led coalition campaign against Houthi forces and their allies in Yemen, vessels are not allowed to navigate Yemen's territorial waters without being inspected.
The crew of the Iran Shahed and the Iranian government have made it clear that Saudi Arabia, the United States or any other country involved in military operations against the Houthi fighters in Yemen will not be allowed to board and inspect the vessel. The presence of an Iranian naval task force in the Gulf of Aden — as part of enduring anti-piracy operations — further complicates the situation, raising the possibility of a naval skirmish.
A Potential Standoff
The United States, which has provided military assistance to the blockade, is caught in an awkward position. Washington must appear supportive of the Saudi operation while trying not to offend Iran at a sensitive point in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. The United States wants to avoid an incident, but the Saudis need to demonstrate that their naval blockade is real.
Hours ago, as the Iran Shahed moved south of the Yemeni port city of Aden, one of the reporters onboard sent a dispatch that attempts were being made to arrange for the vessel to berth in the port of Djibouti, where the International Committee of the Red Cross would accept responsibility for its inspection. Separately, Iran's deputy foreign minister said a decision had been made to dock the ship in Djibouti for the United Nations inspection protocol to take place.
An independent inspection by a neutral international organization could defuse the situation. Saudi Arabia would be able to uphold the effectiveness of its blockade, while the Iranian aid ship would reach Yemen without being boarded or stopped by Saudi or U.S. Navy forces.
There is, however, confusion over the status of the plan. The Iran Shahed's course has not deviated toward Djibouti, and unsubstantiated rumors suggest that Djibouti may have denied access to the vessel. Stratfor is tracking the events surrounding the ship closely. An uncontained incident could damage Washington's foreign relations with the two biggest power brokers in the Middle East.
As the Iranian vessel turns toward Djibouti — where it could arrive by the morning of May 21 — or steams directly for the Bab el-Mandeb strait, the likelihood for escalation or de-escalation will become clear.