Rising tensions over the conflict in Yemen appear to be pitting the United States against Iran in a sensitive showdown in the Gulf of Aden.
Citing current instability and the need to ensure that vital shipping lanes in the area remain open, U.S. naval officials said Monday they are sending two more ships to the waters off the coast of Yemen to take part in “maritime security operations.”
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy passed through the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday, joining seven other U.S. battleships in the area, including the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, which includes a complement of more than 2,000 U.S. Marines.
“The focus is to make sure we have sufficient forces in the area to counter any threats,” said U.S. 5th Fleet spokesman Commander Kevin Stephens, adding that weapons smuggling is a concern. "If they were to have indications of weapons smuggling, there are a number of steps they could take,” he said.
Such measures could include “consensual boarding,” something the Navy did to a Panamanian-flagged vessel in the Red Sea that had been suspected of carrying arms, although nothing was found.
The U.S. move follows reports that Iran has sent a convoy of seven to nine ships to the area, some possibly with weapons for Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Iran earlier said it had sent two other ships to the area for anti-piracy operations.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said U.S. officials are “keeping a very close eye on maritime activities in that region,” but he rejected reports that the move is designed to deter any Iranian arms shipment.
“The USS Theodore Roosevelt is repositioning to conduct maritime security operations,” he said. “It is not going to intercept any Iranian vessels.”
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. has raised concerns, both publicly and privately, with Shi’ite-dominated Iran about its continued support for the Shi’ite Houthi rebels, even supplying the group with weapons.
“There is a real risk that continued political instability inside Yemen would allow more extremist groups to flourish,” he said. “These are exactly the kind of destabilizing activities that we have in mind when we raised concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activity in the Middle East.”
Already, U.S. officials have raised concerns that ongoing turmoil in Yemen is benefiting groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
“AQAP is definitely taking advantage of the chaos, taking over infrastructure [in Yemen],” said a U.S. official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity.
There also are ongoing concerns that Tehran is relying on that same chaos to expand its own sphere of influence.
“It stands to reason the Iranians will do what they can to take advantage of, to the extent they can, of the increased power the Houthis now enjoy in Yemen,” the official said.
Analysts say fears of Iran trying to expand its reach is one of the factors that led Saudi Arabia to begin an air campaign against the Houthi rebels. One former U.S. diplomat said it amounts to Riyadh drawing a line in the sand against its long-time rival in Tehran.
The U.S. has been providing logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi air campaign, which continued to pound Yemen on Monday. The strikes targeted an arms depot in Sana’a, flattening homes and killing at least 30 people and wounding 350 others.
The latest developments come against the backdrop of nuclear negotiations between world powers, including the U.S. and Iran.
In an opinion piece in Monday’s New York Times, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the U.S. and the international community as a whole to put the “manufactured crisis” surrounding nuclear negotiations “to rest and move on to much more important work,” including the turmoil in Yemen and confronting the Islamic State group.
“Iranian foreign policy is holistic in nature,” Zarif wrote. “This is not due to habit or preference, but because globalization has rendered all alternatives obsolete. Nothing in international politics functions in a vacuum. Security cannot be pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others.”
Zarif also wrote that Iran supports an “immediate cease-fire, humanitarian assistance and facilitation of intra-Yemeni dialogue, leading to the formation of an inclusive, broad-based national unity government.”
When asked about the foreign minister’s opinion piece, White House spokesman Earnest on Monday said one element the United States and Iran can agree on is the need for the situation in Yemen to be resolved diplomatically. But he again raised concerns about Iran supplying arms to the Houthis, who swept into Yemen’s capital and forced Western-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee.
“It is a little ironic for the Iranian foreign minister to be calling for a diplomatic resolution to that situation, while at the same time his country continues to supply arms to one party to that dispute, so that the violence can continue and in some cases even worsen,” said Earnest.
The ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria were among the topics as U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed United Arab Emirates leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to the White House Monday. While the leaders made no public comments before or after their working lunch, a White House statement said Obama and Sheikh Zayed also discussed U.S.-led efforts to reach a deal between the P5+1 and Iran, ensuring Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
Obama is reaching out to longtime Arab allies to assuage their concerns about the potential nuclear agreement. The issue likely will dominate a U.S. summit with Gulf Cooperation Council countries at the White House and Camp David next month.
Arab leaders have expressed concerns about Iran’s influence in the region, including its support for insurgent groups. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday acknowledged those concerns and said Iran’s support for terrorist groups in the region is even more reason to ensure the country does not obtain a nuclear weapon.