A US aircraft carrier and guided-missile cruiser are steaming to the waters off Yemen to dissuade Iranian ships from delivering arms to Houthi rebels there, a move the White House has cast as primarily a show of force.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Normandy will join 10 other American warships off the coast of Yemen. The deployment follows the UN Security Council’s decision last week to approve an arms embargo on the Shiite Houthis.
The Pentagon said in a statement that the ships are to protect the region's vital shipping lanes. But unnamed White House officials said that they are prepared to intercept any Iranian vessels carrying weapons to the Houthis.
The deployment is also meant to reassure Saudi Arabia, an American ally that has carried out airstrikes against the rebels over the past month. The United States has been providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition, including refueling aircraft involved in the conflict. But US officials have said that there would be no direct American involvement in the fighting.
“This is really about sending a message,” an American official who declined to be identified told The New York Times. “It is a message to our partners that we are in this and willing to support. It is a message to the Iranians that we’re watching.”
The expanded US Navy activity in the region is occurring at a sensitive time in American-Iranian relations. It comes just weeks after the US and six world powers reached a framework deal with Iran over its nuclear program. As The Associated Press reports:
Since the preliminary deal was reached on April 2, Iran and the U.S. have been disputing the details. And on Monday, a lawyer for Tehran-based Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian said Tehran had charged Rezaian with espionage and three other crimes. The Obama administration dismisses the charges as "absurd."
With tensions running high, The Washington Post reports that Iran sent its own Navy vessels toward Yemen last week. It reportedly positioned them in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the narrow stretch of water at the mouth of the Red Sea between Yemen and Djibouti.
The conflict in Yemen is seen by some as a proxy war between Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, which supports exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. It has also led to a growing humanitarian crisis in the country, the poorest in the Arab world.
While the US is on the side of Saudi Arabia, it has attempted to persuade the Sunni kingdom to limit the scope of its bombing campaign. On Monday, an estimated 50 people were killed in an airstrike on the capital of Sanaa, The Los Angeles Times reports:
Senior U.S. officials, who were not enthusiastic about the Saudi war plan, are increasingly dismayed by heavy civilian casualties and now believe it highly unlikely that Hadi can be reinstated without a ground invasion. They also worry that the turmoil has allowed Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate to expand its territory.
The White House would like Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies to curtail the airstrikes and narrow the objective to focus on protecting the Saudi border, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing internal deliberations.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says the Saudi-led offensive was prompted by the kingdom’s failures elsewhere in the Middle East, causing what he called a “mental imbalance.” He told reporters on Tuesday that it was a country with dashed dreams in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, according to The Associated Press.