Iran says it has dispatched two warships to the Gulf of Aden to ply the same waters as several U.S. Navy vessels are already operating there, one of which launched several Tomahawk missiles at Tehran-backed Houthi radar installations early Thursday morning.
According to the Iranian Tasnim news site, which has links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the frigate Alvand and logistics ship Bushehr are heading to the Yemeni coast “to protect the country’s trade vessels against piracy.” But the site also notes that “the presence of the Iranian fleet in the Gulf of Aden coincides with the US decision to directly get involved in a Saudi-led war against Yemen.” Piracy has all but disappeared in the area, and the Iranian ships are scheduled to then sail south down Africa’s east coast.
The Iranian warship heading to the Gulf of Aden — the 45 year-old Alvand, which carries anti-ship missiles, a Mark 8 gun as well as various machine guns — already has a checkered history with the U.S. Navy. In July 2015, the ship trained its guns on a U.S. Navy helicopter and an allied supply ship operating with the USS Farragut in the waterway, but the incident was contained before any violence broke out.
The news of the deployment comes hours after the USS Nitze launched several Tomahawk missiles at three radar sites in a Houthi rebel-controlled part of Yemen, sites the U.S. believes took part in the three separate missile attacks on U.S. Navy ships operating off the Yemeni coast this week.
Yemen’s Saba news agency, which acts as a mouthpiece for the Houthi-led government, charged Thursday that “U.S. allegations” of its ships being targeted were made to create “false justifications to pave the way for Saudi-led coalition to escalate their aggression” against Yemen “and to cover for crimes continually committed” by the coalition fighting to oust the Houthis from power.
Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Sharaf Luqman Haq also lashed out at Washington on Thursday, telling The Wall Street Journal that the “direct American attack and targeting of Yemeni territory this morning is unacceptable and any developments will be dealt with accordingly.”
The Pentagon is trying to assure regional actors that it’s not interested in taking on a bigger role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
“We don’t seek a wider role in this conflict,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary told reporters Thursday. The strikes were “not connected to the broader conflict in Yemen,” he added, but “should we see a repeat, we will be prepared to take appropriate action again,” he said.
U.S. officials contend that the strike on the three Houthi radar sites was an act of self-defense. White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters Thursday that “the intent of our strikes were to deter future attacks and to reduce the risk to U.S. and other vessels. We are prepared to respond if necessary to any future missile launches.”
It is unclear what prompted the missile launches toward the USS Mason and other ships, but they come days after the Houthis claimed credit for a missile strike on the HSV Swift, a U.A.E-operated navy vessel in the Red Sea that almost completely destroyed the ship.
In a significant move, the Mason deployed two Standard Missile-2s and a single Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile to intercept the incoming missiles, marking the first time either self-defense system has been used to protect an American warship from incoming missiles.
The attack on the American ships also comes amid the backdrop of a Saudi airstrike on a funeral in Sanaa that killed 140 people, including several high-ranking Houthi officials, among them some well-known moderates who were attempting to set up negotiations between the Saudis and Houthis. The strike has led Washington to again assess its support for the air campaign, which includes refueling of Saudi and Emirati bombers, and some intelligence support.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday the U.S. has “been nothing but candid and forthright with the Saudis about our concerns over civilian casualties and collateral damage and our concerns about lack of precision in the conduct of some of these strikes.”