The U.S. may be drawing closer to a confrontation with Iran over involvement in Yemen’s civil war.
Houthi rebel forces in Yemen backed by the Iranian government apparently fired a missile on Wednesday at the USS Mason, which is stationed in the Red Sea. On Sunday, two missiles were fired at the same ship from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen.
The missiles hit the water in both cases.
Yet the provocative launches against the ship, which carries about 330 sailors, are raising questions about how the U.S. will respond.
After the first missile launch, Pentagon officials said they were looking into who was responsible and considering retaliatory measures, including a counterstrike.
"We want very much to get to the bottom of what happened. We're going to find out who did this, and we'll take action accordingly," Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said on Monday.
The Pentagon said Wednesday’s missile launch attack originated from Al Hudaydah, on Yemen's west coast, adding, "We will respond to this threat at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner."
Officials are not shying away from the suggestion that Iran is partly to blame for the Houthi attacks.
"It's no secret that Iran has been supplying them with the tools of war," Davis said on Monday.
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamA pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products MORE (R-S.C.), a retired Air Force colonel, urged the Obama administration to "retaliate swiftly and decisively" after Sunday’s missile launch. If it went unanswered, it would invite further aggression, he said.
He also called for the administration to hold Iran accountable when the "groups they empower" take aggressive action toward U.S. personnel.
The U.S. and Iran have been fighting a proxy war of sorts in Yemen, after Iran-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the Yemeni government in September 2014.
The U.S. joined a Saudi-led Arab military coalition in support of the ousted government, supplying intelligence, advice and logistical support including refueling of aircraft conducting strikes against the Houthis.
The Obama administration has come under increasing pressure from Democrats in Congress over the mounting civilian deaths in the Yemeni civil war. It announced over the weekend it was reviewing its participation in the coalition.
"The U.S. needs to cease immediately the aiding and abetting of the coalition pending the administration's review of the war in Yemen," Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in a letter to Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space MORE on Wednesday.
The missile firings came after a series of escalating events in the Yemeni civil war that drew deeper U.S. involvement.
On Oct. 1, Houthi rebels targeted and hit an Emrati ship that was participating in the Saudi-led coalition, causing serious damage to the ship and reportedly wounding sailors.
The U.S. sent the USS Mason and three amphibious transport ships to the Red Sea in response. U.S. officials, however, said the ships were conducting "routine operations" and not participating in the war.
On Saturday, the Saudi-led coalition fired upon a funeral in Yemen's capital, which is controlled by the Houthis, in what it characterized as an accident. The strike killed more than 140 people.
On Sunday, two missiles were fired at the USS Mason in the first of two attacks on the ship.
The next day, a missile was reportedly fired by Houthi rebels into Saudi Arabia, landing near an air base in Taif.
Cook said the USS Mason would continue its operations in the Red Sea but warned, "Those who threaten our forces should know that U.S. commanders retain the right to defend their ships."
The Navy's chief also put out a rare statement warning it would "respond quickly and decisively" to defend itself.
"The US Navy remains on watch in the Red Sea and around the world to defend America from attack and to protect U.S. strategic interests. These unjustified attacks are serious, but they will not deter us from our mission," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a statement.
"We are trained and ready to defend ourselves and to respond quickly and decisively," he said.
Republicans seized on the attacks as evidence that Obama has coddled Iran with the nuclear deal lifting sanctions on the country.
"The Obama Administration supporting relieving sanctions against Iran, which has enriched the Ayatollah and has made Iran an even bigger nightmare for the region," Graham said.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (R-Fla.) also blamed the administration for the missile firings after the second attack.
"#Iran-backed forces in Yemen again fire on U.S. Navy ship. More attacks resulting from President Obama's failed Iran deal," he tweeted Wednesday.
Defense experts say the missile firings are part of Iran's campaign to drive the U.S. out of the region.
"It's clear that Iran has made a conscious decision to escalate its general strategy of confronting U.S. power and influence in the region by using the fact that these missiles allegedly came from Houthi territory, as a way to mask their broader strategic goal of diminishing U.S. presence in the region," said Washington Institute defense fellow Daniel R. Green.
Iran has also increased its harassment of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf from last year.
But no doubt, the firings are related to U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, experts say.
"They've found an opportunity through U.S. Navy ships going close to their coastline to retaliate against the U.S. for its support of the Saudi war in Yemen," Green. "That conveniently lines up with Iran's strategic interest in continuing to push back U.S. influence in the region."