An Iranian aid ship destined for Yemen bowed to pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States on Wednesday and will dock in Djibouti to allow the United Nations to inspect its cargo.
The Iran Shahed has been sailing for the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since May 11, carrying 2,400 tons of food and 100 tons of medicine, according to Iran. Saudi Arabia, which has been leading an Arab coalition launching air strikes on Houthi rebels since late March, controls the waters around Yemen and has enforced inspections on vessels headed there.
Previously, Iran had rejected the ship being inspected by Saudi Arabia and resisted US encouragement to reroute the vessel to Djibouti for its cargo to be inspected.
The change of course has potentially avoided a conflict between Iran and the Saudi-led forces.
“We have decided to dock our ship in Djibouti so the United Nations inspection protocol can take place,” said Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, according to Iran’s ISNA news agency.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon said two Iranian warships were escorting the vessel and last week, the deputy chief of Iran’s armed forces Brig Gen Massoud Jazayeri warned that any attack on the ship would spark a regional war.
A German activist on the boat, Christoph Hörstel, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday afternoon that activists travelling on the boat welcomed news of the inspection as a positive development.
Mr Hörstel said it would take the ship five or six hours to reach Djibouti from the time the agreement was reached, meaning the ship could arrive by Wednesday evening. He added that the inspection would take about six hours and the ship would take about another day to reach Hodeidah after departing Djibouti.
According to Reuters ship tracking data, the Iran Shahed was positioned south of Aden on Wednesday morning.
Iranian officials say the country will continue attempting to send aid to Yemen.
Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency quoted Iranian Red Crescent Society managing director Seyed Amir Mohsen Ziyaee as saying that Iran would soon send another aid ship to Yemen and that Iran was preparing 12,000 tons of aid for shipment. Mr Ziyaee added that Iran would dispatch planeloads of food aid to Djibouti in the coming days for transfer to Yemen. He also said the Iranian Red Crescent Society would set up a centre in Salalah, Oman, to collect medicinal aid to be transferred to Yemen.
Iran, which supports the Shiite Houthis, is accused by Saudi Arabia and its allies of supplying arms to the rebels, something Tehran denies.
Saudi Arabia has tried to oversee what aid goes into Yemen. Previously, Saudi Arabia has blocked Iranian aid flights by threatening them away with fighter jets according to Iran’s Fars News Agency. The Saudi-led coalition also bombed Sanaa’s airport.
Saudi Arabia leads a coalition that began bombing Yemen in late March as Iran-backed Houthi rebels neared the southern port of Aden. The coalition hopes to reinstate Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.
According to the UN, at least 1,800 people have been killed since late March.
The Saudis have still not said whether they will allow the ship to proceed to Yemen if it passes inspection in Djibouti.
Djibouti sits at a strategic chokepoint where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden. At its narrowest, the Bab el Mandeb strait between Yemen and Djibouti is just 30 kilometres across.
Because of its proximity, Djibouti has established itself as a primary hub for aid destined to Yemen as well as a destination for refugees fleeing the civil war.
Djibouti is a valued ally of the United States, whose military bases here have been key to its military operations in Yemen and Somalia. But other nations have courted Djibouti as well, including the Iranians who built the country’s parliament building last year.