Joseph Klein: Is Obama Ready to Confront Iran Over Yemen?

The Obama administration, while showing willingness to cave in to just about every Iranian demand in the ongoing nuclear negotiations, appears to be flexing its muscles in the Yemen proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is headed toward the waters off Yemen from the Persian Gulf, escorted by the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy. Its presence will add to the fleet of other American warships already there, including cruisers and destroyers, conducting maritime security operations in or around the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and the Southern Red Sea. Some of these ships have teams capable of boarding and searching other vessels.

This preparedness appears to be in response to a reported convoy of about eight Iranian ships on the way to Yemen. The Iranian ships may be carrying arms for their Houthi allies fighting to take complete control of Yemen from the Saudi-backed government. Iran appears determined to test the blockade of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in place off the Yemen coastline. It may also be testing President Obama’s willingness to stand by an ally militarily with more than just logistical and intelligence-sharing support.

The precise mission for the expanded U.S. naval fleet is not clear, although the Associated Press and other media outlets mention the obvious – interception and search of Iranian vessels for arms. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, tried to shoot down such speculation. “Ships are repositioning to conduct maritime security operations, they are not going to intercept Iranian ships,” he said. Col. Warren would only tell reporters that “the security situation in Aden is such that the combatant commander wanted his carrier over there.” A Defense Department official, insisting on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the Iranian vessels, was reported by USA Today to have said that the USS Theodore Roosevelt is tracking the convoy of Iranian ships headed to the Gulf of Aden. A second Defense official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the Navy is prepared to intercept the Iranian ships.

The Navy, in a statement released on April 20, explained in general terms that it “has increased its presence in this area as a result of the current instability in Yemen. The purpose of these operations is to ensure the vital shipping lanes in the region remain open and safe. The United States remains committed to its regional partners and to maintaining security in the maritime environment.”

While not commenting specifically on the naval ship movements, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “the Iranians are acutely aware of our concerns for their continued support of the Houthis by sending them large shipments of weapons.”

The USS Theodore Roosevelt is said to be the U.S. Navy’s most technologically capable aircraft carrier. It completed a four-year-long $2.6 billion refurbishment last August. In January, it participated in what is known as the Composite Training Unit Exercise, which included “training evaluations from a hostile ship boarding, submarine attacks, and enemy ships or vessels trying impede their justice upon our strike group,” according to Capt. Scott F. Robertson, commanding officer of Normandy.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt is described on its website as being tasked, among other things, with “maintaining open sea lanes of trade and communications.” It is possible that it will be used to ensure that the Iranians and their allies are not able to successfully block sea lanes for oil shipments and other commerce, including through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb passage, if and when teams from other ships actually conduct the interceptions of Iranian ships.

If the Obama administration were to proceed with interceptions of Iranian ships approaching Yemen, it would justify such actions as authorized enforcement, under the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted last week, of the arms embargo imposed on arms headed for the Houthis and their allies. Iran may seek to evade interception, however, by routing its arms through Oman and utilizing a potential land route for smuggling arms into Yemen.

In any event, if President Obama’s track record of backing down in the face of Iranian demands in the nuclear talks is any indication, Iran does not have much to worry about. He will most likely back down as well from undertaking any consequential confrontation with Iran over Yemen.

Iran’s leaders are watching Obama and all they see is weakness. Last Friday, Obama appeared to move even more towards Iran’s position on the timing of sanctions relief. Even though the Obama administration’s own factsheet made clear that sanctions could only be lifted gradually in phases, correlated to evidence of Iran’s compliance with its obligations under a final agreement, Obama is now willing to soften that position. He is instructing his negotiators to come up with “creative” solutions to the sanctions issue that will enable “the other side to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.”  This “body politic,” whose only member that counts is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, continues its exclamations of “Death to America” in the midst of the negotiations. Does Obama really think that, if U.S. naval forces board Iranian ships and dispose of any arms cargo, Iran’s “body politic” will deem that action “acceptable” and not harden its negotiation stance even more, not to mention simply walking away from the negotiating table altogether? Iran’s leaders know how important a nuclear deal is to President Obama and that he is hardly likely to sacrifice it by going out on the limb for the sake of protecting Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen.

Obama thinks that all we have to do in the event of Iran’s breach of a final nuclear agreement is to “snap back” the sanctions into place. While theorizing how easily it would be to “snap back” sanctions lifted once a final deal is signed, he expressed no worries regarding Russia’s announced lifting of its suspension of delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran even before there is any final deal.  “I am frankly surprised that it held this long, given that they were not prohibited by sanctions from selling these defensive weapons,” Obama said. Even Obama’s State Department had expressed concerns about the Russian decision, not to mention the military. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters before Obama’s no worries statement, “Our opposition to these sales is long and public. We believe it’s unhelpful.”

To say that President Obama is sending mixed signals to our adversaries, our allies, members of his own administration and our troops is an understatement. It is no wonder that more than half of active-duty troops say they disapprove of the way President Obama is handling his job as commander-in-chief, according to a Military Times poll.

Former Secretaries of Defense serving under President Obama have expressed serious concerns about his leadership as commander-in-chief. Former Secretary of Defense and past CIA Director Leon Panetta, for example, wrote in his memoir, “Worthy Fights,” that Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.” Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” that Obama did not believe in the likelihood of success of his own decisions in Afghanistan. Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Gates wrote. “For him, it’s all about getting out.” Gates also complained about “White House breaches of faith” that undermined Gates’ confidence and trust in his dealings with Obama and his team.

All of this raises serious doubts as to President Obama’s resoluteness in facing down the Iranian regime’s growing regional hegemony and its sponsorship of global terrorism. Even if there is some sort of skirmish off the coast of Yemen, it will be a sideshow to Obama’s utter inability to finally draw meaningful red lines in the nuclear negotiations that do not quickly fade away under pressure from Iran’s “body politic.”