Norfolk ships gets credit after Iran convoy turns away

By Helene Cooper
The New York Times

Pentagon officials Friday credited the deployment of the Norfolk-based Theodore Roosevelt’s carrier group in waters off Yemen for a decision by Iran to turn back a naval convoy suspected of carrying weapons bound for Shiite rebels.

Although it was unusual to dispatch such a large U.S. naval force to the Arabian Sea on an interdiction and deterrence mission, Pentagon officials said the deployment – and Iran’s apparent response – had lowered tensions in the continuing regional proxy war between Tehran and Saudi Arabia.

The nine-ship Iranian convoy had turned north and east near the coast of Oman, in the direction of Iran, Defense Department officials said. Col. Steven H. Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said “we do not know their future intentions” but added, “It’s fair to say that, yes, this appears to be a de-escalation of some of the tensions.”

Earlier in the week, the convoy had been on a course toward the Yemeni port of Aden, prompting Defense Secretary Ash Carter to call on Iran to avoid “fanning the flames” of the conflict by delivery weapons.

The U.S. Navy diverted the aircraft carrier group, led by the Theodore Roosevelt, from its usual position in the Arabian Gulf, through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Arabian Sea, to join other U.S. forces conducting maritime security operations in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Roosevelt was escorted by the Norfolk-based guided missile cruiser Normandy.

Defense Department officials said the move was two-fold: One was to reassure Saudi Arabia that the United States was serious in its intent to support gulf allies that have been waging war in Yemen – even though President Barack Obama had no intention of actually using the carrier group to launch U.S. strikes in Yemen. The second was to send a message to Iran that the United States would not allow weapons shipments to Houthi rebels in Yemen – even though that same message could have been delivered with a smaller vessel such as a naval frigate.

Defense Department officials privately made the case that, while deploying an aircraft carrier group may have been more than was required, the move got the point across to Iran.

“There’s very few assets the U.S. military has at its disposal with more deterrent effect than a U.S. aircraft carrier,” one Defense Department official said, speaking on ground rules of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

The official said that while the United States was not planning to launch airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen from the carrier, it was “important that the Saudis know that we have an arm around their shoulder.”

For a month, Saudi Arabia has launched airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. The Obama administration has sided with its Arab ally in the fight but in recent days has sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to ease off its air campaign as civilian casualties mounted and seek political negotiations. The Saudi airstrikes, though, have continued.

Defense Department officials said there were no communications between the U.S. and Iranian ships, and they could not say what type of cargo was being transported, although an arms shipment was suspected.

It was unclear whether the United States would have tried to board or stop the Iranian convoy if it had continued toward Yemen; such a move would have risked escalating the conflict in Yemen and could have stymied fragile negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.

Also Friday, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president and the Houthis’ most important ally in the conflict, issued a statement calling on the Houthis to implement U.N. resolutions that require them to withdraw from territory they have occupied, in return for an end to the “aggression” by the Saudi-led coalition.

Saleh has remained one of Yemen’s most stubbornly resilient and powerful political figures, despite stepping down in 2012 after a domestic uprising against his rule.

It was not clear whether his comments Friday, including a call for warring parties to “stop fighting” and engage in dialogue, amounted to another survival tactic or were a genuine attempt to end the conflict.

There was no sign that Saleh’s own loyalists were standing down or withdrawing, including from the southern port city of Aden. Units close to Saleh have made up the bulk of the force fighting in Aden against local southern separatist militiamen and are accused, along with the Houthis, of carrying out a brutal siege of the city.

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