- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The United States has deployed two more warships to take up position off the Yemeni coast, joining seven other American naval vessels already patrolling the area and a veritable flotilla of Iranian ships that have been rapidly moving toward the war-ravaged country.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy are arriving just as two Iranian warships have taken up position in the Gulf of Aden, heightening tensions between the two rivals just as fighting between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Yemeni forces supported by Saudi Arabia and other American allies intensifies.
For weeks, a Saudi-led coalition has been conducting daily airstrikes against the Houthis. Washington isn’t taking part in the bombing runs, but the United States has been refueling warplanes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the air in between bombing runs. Saudi Arabia claims its campaign is making steady progress, but human rights groups say not enough is being done to prevent civilian casualties.
Riyadh and Washington have long accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons and other military equipment, and there are concerns that the Iranian ships may attempt to funnel new armaments to the Houthis through the port of Aden, portions of which have fallen to the rebels.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to comment on the U.S. Navy’s latest moves during his Monday press briefing, but did say that the United States has long been concerned about Iran’s “continued support” for the Houthi rebels.
“We have seen evidence that the Iranians are supplying weapons and other armed support to the Houthis in Yemen,” Earnest said. “That support will only contribute to greater violence in that country. These are exactly the kind of destabilizing activities that we have in mind when we raise concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East.”
Despite the tough talk, though, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Monday that the Navy was simply conducting routine “maritime security operations” near Yemen and insisted that the ships are “not going to intercept Iranian ships.”
Tehran, for its part, says that its ships are conducting routine anti-piracy activities in the gulf. On April 18, the commander of the Iranian navy, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, said that “our presence and measures in the area are within the framework of international laws,” according to the Iranian state-owned PressTV.
U.S. Navy photo