On Monday, suspicious footage emerged appearing to show an explosion of some sort rocking a Saudi frigate off the coast of Yemen.
Initially, Iranian media reported that the Saudi frigate had been hit by an anti-ship missile, much like the kind Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen had fired in October at an Emirati ship and several US Navy vessels.
Later, Saudi media reported the incident as a terrorist attack carried out by “suicide boats,” or small craft laden with bombs, which left two Saudi sailors dead.
The statement said that the Saudi ship continued on with its patrol as the Saudi Air Force chased down the remaining militants “to deal with them.”
According to Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on Iran at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, reports from Iran, who provides military support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter rival, should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Iran definitely wants to play up Houthi military capabilities,” said Taleblu in an interview with Business Insider. In October, the Houthis surprised many observers with their advanced capabilities in a successful missile launch against an Emirati ship with an anti-ship missile.
The October strike represented a PR coup for the Houthis and their Iranian backers, something which they may have looked to replicate with the latest attack. “They don’t mind having it resonate in their media,” Taleblu said of the idea that the Houthis have significant anti-ship capabilities.
The Saudis have reason to try to spin the encounter as well. “Normally the Saudis would want to ascribe all of the Houthi military capabilities to Iran,” said Taleblu.
In this case, by claiming that the Houthis used suicide vessels instead of missiles, the Saudis actually downplay the militants’ capabilities.
Suicide boats, or fast attack craft with a human pilot and explosives, can achieve a similar effect as sophisticated anti-ship missiles, but they’re considerably more primitive and unimpressive. A fast attack craft moving at full speed pales in comparison to the full speed of a large military ship like the Saudi frigates.
“If they sent a suicide boat, it removes any kind of military prowess,” said Taleblu.
The poor, questionable quality of the video released furthers the discrepancy between the Iranian and Saudi media reports.
In conclusion, Taleblu says the story told by the Saudis seems more likely. “I’d be more inclined to go with the Saudis … Iran has significant incentive to misrepresent Houthi capabilities,” concluded Taleblu.