Honey Trap for Israelis and Americans in the Red Sea

Yves here. As befitting over the holiday season, there is not a lot of new news about the Houthi effort to block shipping to and from Israel, nor much in the way of updates on the so-far-halting US Operation Prosperity Guardian response. There has been much consternation over an attack, attributed to Iran, on an “Israel-linked” ship near India. So John Helmer’s intel from the Red Sea, about Iran potentially baiting the US and Israel, is an important addition to the state of play, as are reports that European states are quietly trying to work out deals with the Houthis and allegedly Iran too to have their ships left alone.

Some recent sightings from the Twitterverse:

By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears

The Iranian intelligence vessel, MV Behshad, at anchor in the Red Sea, is a honey trap intended to lure both the Israelis and US Navy into an attack, according to Russian and other sources.

The French and Spanish navies appear to anticipate or to know: they have announced they will not operate their warships in the area under US command. Instead, the French have said they will restrict their operations to guarding their own French-flagged vessels and cargoes.   The French Navy also appears to have agreed to clear the backlog of Maersk container vessels trapped and no longer under way in the Red Sea and in the Gulf of Aden.

The French and similar disclaimers from Spain and Italy follow maritime media reports of acrimonious disputes between the Europeans and the US over the US priority to attack the Houthis and save Israel.

The Europeans, including the Italian and Greek navies, which have also announced they are sending warships, are following the Russian lead in secretly working out an accommodation with Iran and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) leadership for safe passage through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in exchange for agreement to boycott Israel. In defence of their economies and shipping, support from the European allies is dwindling for Israel’s war against the Palestinians; there is no support for Israeli and American threats to expand the war against Iran and the Houthis.

The Pentagon and White House-led plan to save the Israeli port of Eilat and the Israeli economy from the long-war attrition strategy of the Arabs is collapsing. US maritime sources report “the precarious situation of US-flagged ships stranded with military cargo near the Red Sea is at the center of this coalition angst. The French want to prioritize their ships while US-flagged ships – which the US Navy is obligated to defend – are inexplicably a lower priority for the US.  This urgent matter, highlighted by the recent rocket attack on a US-flagged tanker in Israel, starkly exposes the vulnerability of these vessels due to the alarming absence of adequate military protection. This critical situation not only threatens the safety of these ships but also raises profound questions about the United States’ resolve to safeguard its maritime assets, a commitment that seems to be wavering dangerously.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said the decision to attack vessels in the Red Sea region is “a completely Yemeni decision in support and defence of Gaza.” He added there is no need for the US coalition operation. If “they stop supporting the murderous Israeli regime and they will see a safer region and a better situation even for the transfer of energy.”

Since the start of the Gaza war, and the engagement of Houthi forces in support of the Palestinians, the identification of the Motor Vessel Behshad was first made in the open press last Thursday. A  Russian map showing the Behshad and the positions of all other state naval vessels in the area was published by Militarist, a Moscow military blogger on Thursday morning, Moscow time.  It was then republished by Boris Rozhin’s Colonel Cassad. They provided no comment at the time, or since.

Follow the story here.

Click to enlarge the map and read analysis:  https://johnhelmer.net/

A day earlier in Moscow, the business newspaper Kommersant reported that Russian oil shipments were continuing to move unhindered and undeterred through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea,  and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait enroute to India and China. The newspaper failed to report that this required secret Russian negotiations and maritime intelligence-sharing with the Iranians and the Houthis. Read the analysis here.

This was the first overt sign that the distinction President Vladimir Putin has been making between Hamas “terrorism” and the Palestinian war for national liberation has collapsed. Publication of the Red Sea naval deployment map was the second sign. The Israeli and American threat to strike the Iranian intelligence vessel Behshad as part of their war against Houthi “terrorism” is leading to a third Russian sign. It has yet to materialize.

Russian and western military sources recall the Behshad’s predecessor, the MV Saviz, also at anchor in the Red Sea, was hit by an Israeli commando raid which detonated limpet mines to sink the vessel. That was on April 6, 2021, and was reported by Iranian, Arab, British and US media at the time.  The attack fell short; the Saviz did not sink, and was towed back to Iran. It was then replaced in the Red Sea by the Behshad.   The Saviz has been repaired and refitted and redeployed in the eastern sector of the Indian Ocean, off India.

The Israelis, assisted by the US, have been waging a frequent sabotage war against Iranian Navy vessels, and the Iranians are well aware of it.

What signals intelligence, satellite and other information Russia is providing Iran, to be shared with the Houthis, is unknown. Unprecedented, however, is the intervention with President Putin by Igor Sechin — head of the Rosneft group, Russia’s largest oil producer and the closest of Putin’s policy advisors in the past — to place the security of Russia’s oil interests in collaboration with Iran and the Houthis above Putin’s concern for Israel. In Putin’s office, Sechin was once Turkey’s advocate for similar reasons.

How is Russia responding to the Israeli-American threat against the Behshad?

MV Saviz -- https://www.marinetraffic.com/

MV Behshad – https://www.marinetraffic.com/ 

Intelligence-sharing with Iran is a Defense Ministry and General Staff responsibility, sharpened by deep-seated hostility towards the Israelis for their attacks in Syria against Iranian and also Russian targets, including the shoot-down of the Russian Il-20 signals intelligence aircraft in November 2018. At the time,  Putin defended Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the public objections of the Defense Ministry and General Staff; read that story here.

Iran is also playing a significant role in support of Russia’s war against NATO in the Ukraine, while Israel has backed the Zelensky regime. Putin has again insisted on soft-pedaling towards Netanyahu and was cool towards Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi when they met earlier this month.

Source:  https://johnhelmer.net/

Western and Russian sources think the positioning of the Behshad in the present situation is more likely to be a lure for foolhardy Israeli or US operations than it is a vulnerability on the part of the Iranian military.  The record suggested by these sources is that after the Saviz incident two years ago, vessel detection and tracking in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden have been securely transferred to hidden locations onshore in Yemen. “I suspect,” one source said, “the Behshad is a honey trap, but I’ve no idea what response the Iranians, Russians and Chinese have formulated if there is an attack on the Behshad.”

The Spanish and Italians have intimated in their announcements they want no part of such an Israeli-American operation against an Iranian target.

According to US maritime sources reporting to the US publication gCaptain,  “the French Navy has shifted their focus away from US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian after a representative allegedly stormed out of the operation’s first meeting with US officials. The French have begun escorting their own cargo ships, including the containerships CMA CGM Pegasus, CMA CGM George Washington and APL Salalah, through the Red Sea. At the heart of this unfolding drama is a critical question: which ships deserve protection? While the French have shown a clear intent to prioritize their own shipping interests, the US approach has left its own American-flagged ships stranded in the region, that have been – some for a full week – waiting for escort…This development marks a significant shift in the geopolitical dynamics of maritime security in one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes. The French decision underscores a growing crisis in shipping that puts national and regional priority ahead of global needs, while the US focuses on protecting all shipping – including ships owned by rivals like China – at the expense of the dwindling fleet of US-flagged merchant ships.”

gCaptain is one of the leading website and twitter publishing platforms in the US for the maritime industry; it is based in California and run by John Konrad, a professional merchant mariner and ship’s captain.   He is hostile to Russia, and since the start of the Special Military Operation he has refused to report on Russian shipping or the new book, Sovcomplot.  

Top: John Konrad of gCaptain; Sovcomplot, the first book on the Russian shipping industry since 1991 in English
Bottom: Ship charter rates have begun to jump since the start of the Gaza war, together with insurance premiums and logistics costs, as the Houthi campaign has driven global shipping away from Israel. Read more: https://gcaptain.com/ 

Konrad  is also reporting that “sources have revealed a pervasive sense of confusion, affecting not only European shipping executives but also US shipowners who have access to classified Pentagon briefings. In interviews conducted by gCaptain, sources within the US military highlighted a disjointed response to the crisis. While certain military elements, such as the US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) and the Navy’s Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS), have been actively engaging with ship owners, other segments of the military appear uncertain about the command structure of the operation. This lack of clarity over leadership roles is contributing to the overall confusion surrounding the initiative…sources have revealed a pervasive sense of confusion, affecting not only European shipping executives but also US shipowners who have access to classified Pentagon briefings. In interviews conducted by gCaptain, sources within the US military highlighted a disjointed response to the crisis. While certain military elements, such as the US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) and the Navy’s Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS), have been actively engaging with ship owners, other segments of the military appear uncertain about the command structure of the operation. This lack of clarity over leadership roles is contributing to the overall confusion surrounding the initiative.”

Vessel location map as of December 22. As of Friday, the French Navy appears to be escorting the US-flagged Maersk Seletar and Green Bay.

Editorially, the US maritime media are trying to save themselves, and have no regard for Israel.

“The leadership vacuum needs to be filled across the pond [Atlantic] as well,” claims gCaptain.  “If the operation continues under American leadership, it’s crucial for top executives of major shipping companies, such as Vincent Clerc of Maersk, to engage directly with key U.S. officials. Meetings in Washington D.C. with the Navy and Transportation Secretaries would be a pivotal move. Such collaboration would send a resounding message to mariners navigating the precarious waters under threat from Houthi drones. It would demonstrate a united front where the shipping industry, government authorities, and naval leadership are synchronizing their efforts to ensure safer seas. This is more than a strategic decision; it’s a necessary step to bolster confidence and security in these high-risk areas.”

Late on December 23, the US Central Command issued a report  claiming it had responded to at least two Houthi drone attacks on oil tankers in the southern sector of the Red Sea. One of the targets was the Norwegian-flagged MV Blaamanen; it was missed narrowly. The second target was the Indian-flagged MV Saibaba, which was hit but reported no injuries. Before these strikes, the USS Laboon was targeted by at least four drones, and claims to have shot them down. It then moved to assist the tankers targeted. Two anti-ballistic missiles were also reported to have been fired in the area during the day without hitting their targets and without being intercepted.

Source: https://twitter.com/

The British maritime warning agency, UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), has issued a tweet indicating that late on Saturday afternoon of December 23, local time, a ship had been attacked in the Indian Ocean, southwest of India,  by a drone. This caused an explosion and fire on the ship but no casualties.

Later reports  indicate that the vessel was the Liberian flagged, Indian crewed,  and “Israel affiliated” MV Chem Pluto  which was carrying a cargo of crude oil from Saudi Arabia to Mangalore. The 1,600-kilometre distance from Yemen to the site attack  is greater than the known ranges of Houthi drones. The Pentagon is claiming the attack “was launched directly from Iran by the Iranian Armed Forces.”   An Indian media report claims the drone may have been launched by the Saviz, now reportedly located in the Indian Ocean just 87 kilometres away from the Chem Pluto.

Source: United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO)

There were four UKMTO warning notices for the Indian Ocean area on December 23; altogether for the month of December so far, there have been 20 incident reports, a record for the year.   For maps and incident summaries for use by mariners, ship charterers,  and logistics planners, click on this UKMTO security chart.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    ‘Intelligence-sharing with Iran is a Defense Ministry and General Staff responsibility, sharpened by deep-seated hostility towards the Israelis for their attacks in Syria against Iranian and also Russian targets, including the shoot-down of the Russian Il-20 signals intelligence aircraft in November 2018. At the time, Putin defended Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the public objections of the Defense Ministry and General Staff; read that story here.’

    In the same way that Putin has finally given up on the west, no longer refers to them as partners, and is now actively hostile to them, I am thinking that he may be having a change of mind about the Israelis. After all, it was only a few months ago that a spokesmen of World Likud referred to Russia as an enemy country (not sure why) and with the homicidal, self-defeating behaviour of Israel right now, this might be a good time to evaluate relations. This may have been underlined when at the start of the Gaza war, some 2,000 Israelis pulled out of the Ukraine where they had been fighting Russian soldiers. You can bet that the Russian military establishment noticed that little tidbit.

    1. luis

      I think it’s the natural follow-up to his recent “i was naive” speech, the Russians have realized that being ideologically aligned with the west does not mean they’ll get treated as equals. They’re slowly solving this contradiction.

    2. John k

      Yes. Putin seems really smart and hard working but clearly has had serious blind spots. Maybe events are clarifying his vision.

      1. aaron

        Russia materially has a long relationship with Israel and close ties to Israelis, i think viewing this through the lens of “Putin” misses the forest for the trees. Whatever their relationship with likud present and future, its stance will be weighed against the complicated history with all the rest of Israel.

  2. Pym of Nantucket

    Russia has experienced first hand how the West responds to sudden actions. A media blitz rapidly fans out to shape the narrative toward a reaction that was already planned. I think they have been doing everything slowly because, like with October 7, the real story takes a while to emerge. They seemed to have reverse engineered the Colin Powell powerpoints or similar knee jerk PR blitzes that have been the way, so many times, to drag the populace into neocon plans.

  3. polar donkey

    $850 billion apparently only gets defense contractors’ boats and summer homes, not a capable military. If you are sea based empire, you better have a kick ass navy. Surprise, the US doesn’t have that.

    1. Tom K-ski

      Yemen is a very complex tribal society and an average westerner is not able to comprehend their internal politics. I suspect even Arabists may struggle to figure out the interplay between the tribes. Yemeni politics is described as “dancing on the heads of the snakes”, snakes meaning the tribes here. Since Houthis also known as Ansarullah are in control of Sana’a – capital city of Yemen, then everything will be described as Yemeni, in this case Yemeni Army.

  4. Benjamin Vulpes

    Thanks for the link to Sovcomflot, snagged a copy. I didn’t realize that Konrad was quite so anti-Russian either!

  5. Bill Malcolm

    Well, the situation is confused, not helped IMO by Helmer’s writing style. One paragraph is like one deja-vu sentence after another — haven’t really any clue what he really means, or that he even knows himself.

    One of the takeaways here is that the US administration seems to be more interested in protecting Israeli interests than its very own shipping. Shades of not caring about its own citizenry except as tax remitters and voters. If the Biden administration can get anything totally wrong, it picks that very option every single time without fail.

    Austin appears to have the brainpower of a split pea, and Tony Blinken is an Israeli for all intents and purposes. Both of these supreme twits publicly encourage Israel to kill Palestinians lightly and discreetly, while continuously airlifting ordnance to Netanyahoo and his cronies non-stop to bomb the hell out of Palestinian civilians. It is not a good look.

    Funnily enough on the other hand, it seems that various Russian business factions are bypassing Putin’s soft outlook on Benji and his bad boys. If Helmer is correct about this, it goes to show that Putin is hardly the authoritarian dictator he’s painted as in the West. Maybe he’s slowly waking up to reality on the Gaza situation — one hopes so.

    Meanwhile, the Spanish, Italians and Greeks are not willing to put up with Austin’s amateurish efforts at trying to form a coalition of the stupid. They’re not having any damn’ fool American tell them how to protect their ships, thankyou all the same. Iran has ties to Algeria and the Strait of Gibraltar could be “closed” by them, while Morocco next door, a US ally, isn’t going to war with Algeria on the Israeli anti-Muslim issue. So the European Mediterranean nations have given the middle finger to Austin’s useless bluster. The situation is serious as hell for them, while the US expects them to fall on their swords for the criminal Israelis. Not going to happen to them. unlike with the Germans and their businesses, who have propounded the US sanctions line on Russia to their country’s complete detriment. France is now also waking up a bit to find the US is royally screwing them — they’ve left Niger, but the Americans have not, for example. France was hung out to dry, quelle surprise.

    The Chinese are also supposedly considering escorting their own ships in the Red Sea area, and have a naval base at Djibouti with naval ships at the ready. India also seems likely to want to escort its own ships, if one believes today’s Indian Punchline blog.

    So, it’s every man for himself the way things are starting to turn out. Complete disunity. That’s according to my perspective, and I’m naught but a rank amateur interested observer trying to make sense of it all. But there’s wheels within wheels here that are hidden from view.

    Orban all but told von der Lyin’ to mind her own business as an unelected nitwit and not presume to speak on Hungary’s or anyone else’s behalf on sovereignty matters. He said that wasn’t the EC or EU’s remit, and that EU countries should “occupy” Brussels and start to assert their own national sovereignties on foreign affairs by disregarding EC bureaucratic BS. He went on to say if vdL didn’t like what he had to say, just try to kick Hungary out of the EU, because it is not going to happen. (I’m paraphrasing here, because Orban didn’t mention vdL directly, but it’s obvious what he meant) So if dear Ursula pipes up to tell Spain, Italy and Greece how to behave in this shipping crisis and be palsy walsy with Austin, she’ll no doubt get more than an earful — not that it’ll dent her supreme egotistic self-confidence. What a maroon.

    Speculating even further, as is my wont, with no claims to being correct or trying to tread on anyone else’s analytic toes because I may well have got something big wrong, it seems to me that the US has totally snookered itself. They’ve backed the wrong horses, doubled down on idiocy and lies, presumed they’re still the hegemon when it’s become obvious things are fast unravelling at the seams to non-Western observers. It’s getting to the point where a lot of the world doesn’t give a ratsh!t what the US “thinks”. They’ve failed in Ukraine and supported genocidal maniacs in Israel, yet still posture as the swaggering big bad boy of the world, disregarding facts on the ground completely. They cannot even subdue the Houthis or contemplate how to do it. Screwed, blued and tattoed is how we used to put such situations in the vernacular decades ago. But still the US blusters away, as others say out loud, “Yeah, yeah, yeah — but what are you going to DO about it?” The answer at the moment seems to add up to eff all, because they cannot. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of PMC neocons. YMMV.

  6. Del

    Here’s a hot tip for Gulf States: You want to see some real withdrawals of U.S. taxpayer forced tribute to Israel?

    Just stop sending anymore oil to the U.S. until a real cease fire and two state solution including returning to the 1967 borders of the HalluciNation are reestablished.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      We discussed this early on. Now is not even remotely 1973. Oil supplies globally were tight before that embargo. They aren’t now. EVs are also cutting into demand. Again unlike 1973, US production is at an all time high. An embargo would increase prices and inflation, and thus hurt Biden’s re-election prospects, but it’s not the economy-crippler it was in the 1970.

  7. Valerie in Australia

    Apparently, Israel is “the hill” America and the Biden administration “want to die on.”

    I think it is clear to all of Europe by now – between the sabotage of the Nord Stream Pipeline and the dumping of Ukraine with barely a backward glance in favour of Israel – that the U.S. is willing to throw its allies under the bus if it suits its nefarious goals. Well good! It’s about time that the European countries woke up to the idea that they have to watch out for themselves – because the U.S. certainly doesn’t have their back.

    Plus, Israel is fast becoming a pariah nation and “birds of a feather, flock together.” I don’t think many nations other than the U.S. want to be considered part of the same genocidal flock as Israel and the U.S.

  8. Savita

    Thanks Valerie.
    A good example to your point are the incumbent Albanese Labor government in Australia.
    Australia is reliably adherent to the desires of the US. The AUKUS submarine deal is a good example. Originating with the highly maligned Liberal government + Scott Morrison, the newly elected Labor party nonetheless concurred. Instead of doing an about-face on everything the Liberal party touched, as one would expect a new party to do.

    Anyway my point is in regards the Middle East. There are two unusual examples of Australia departing from its usual practice of being a stooge for the US.
    After adamantly refusing to support a cease-fire Labor finally buckled to public opinion, as we know, recently voting in favour of one. I was surprised by this

    Secondly, Australia chose not to dispatch a frigate to support the US with Operation Poodle Grandiose, or whatever its called. The US asked, and Australia said no!

    As another commentator noted, it was hilarious to hear on the radio Australia has sent 11 personnel instead.

  9. Rain

    On one level, this ‘Coalition of the Killing 2.0’ has been quite comical to watch. Im not sure even the Monty Python crew at their peak could have done better.

    As for the tanker attacked in the Indian ocean, I suspect a false-flag more than Iran. Perhaps a Pakistani non-state actor, but most non-state actors are usually happy to claim a ‘ hit’.

    All the West Asian state actors, including Iran, are staying out of it militarily. Non-State actors are acting independently and communicating what they are doing and why.

    So if not a State actor, or a non-State actor, the most plausible thing left is false-flag.

    Putin, I think was being careful in the early period with Israel, there are around half-million Russian-Israelis and several had been caught up as Hamas prisoners. Putin met with Hamas directly in Moscow and Russian-Israeli prisoners were released early in addition to the formal negotiated releases, reported as a “gift for Putin”. It was after the next round of failed hostage release negotiations, blocked by Netanyahu, that Putins attitude turned sour. The garbage put out on the Al-Shifa hospital etc, the attacks on schools, UN workers, ambulances etc may have turned a few stomachs of even the most ruthless.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Various Western but not Israel-friendly sources (IIRC of the Larry Johnson sort, not certain if him though) have said the missile could have come from Lebanon. I see no reason for Iran to behave in an out-of-character manner. And the Western press has a tendency to equate all Iran allies with Iran when they all have autonomy.

      It is an overstatement to say all non-state actors have been communicating their moves. Hamas has been close-mouthed and Hezbollah is only partly transparent.

  10. Gregory Etchason

    Xi Jinping’s Naval play in Djibouti is a message to the West “watch your step the price could be great”

    1. Phenix

      China is not a naval power. The US for all of it’s problems is still the world’s dominant naval power. The US is constrained in the Red Sea but in the open ocean no one will want to confront US assets.

      China does not want a hot war. They are the most integrated global economy and any disruption to global trade will have a greater impact on them then on the US since it is one of the least integrated economies.

      Helmer indicates this indirectly when he points out that the US is protecting China’s ships while letting US ships wait for escort.

      An American President that steps away from protecting global trade will have tremendous repercussions that very few of any people understand….I know I don’t ..

      I am still waiting to see what Turkiye really wants….Russia/China/Iran is not in the interests of the Turks.

      The same applies to India.

  11. TxBig

    I guess no one here cares about what awaits the Houthi children if their dads don’t stop the piracy soon enough.

    1. Roger


      But I can’t shake the suspicion that the Saudis are going to have Yemen delivered, gift wrapped. their rule. Would have all ready happened under another term of Trump and will when Trump seizes the presidency in November.

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