Iran announced Thursday it had deployed two warships to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, where a U.S. Navy destroyer recently fired retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebel sites in Yemen.
The move is the latest escalation in U.S.-Iran tension related to a proxy war in Yemen, where the two are backing opposing sides. The U.S. in March 2015 joined a Saudi-led military coalition to support the embattled Yemeni government against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Although the semi-official Iranian Tasnim News Agency reported that the Iran ship deployments were to "protect the country's trade vessels against piracy in the unsafe zone," it also noted that it "coincides with the US decision to directly get involved in a Saudi-led war against Yemen."
Late Wednesday evening, the USS Nitze, a Navy destroyer, fired cruise missiles from the Red Sea at three radar sites in "Houthi-controlled territory" in Yemen that U.S. officials say were used to launch two missile attacks at U.S. ships operating off the coast of Yemen on Sunday and Wednesday.
The U.S. strikes raised the prospect that the U.S. would move toward deeper military engagement in the civil war.
The U.S. so far has provided advice and logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Houthi rebels, who ousted the government from the capital of Sanaa in September 2014. The White House announced over the weekend it would review that support due to concerns about mounting civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis in the country.
Pentagon and White House officials on Thursday both refrained from commenting on the Iranian ship deployments and tried to disavow the notion that the U.S. strikes had anything to do with the broader civil war in Yemen, saying they were narrowly in response to the missile launches against U.S. ships.
"These strikes were, again, a response to threats to our vessels and to freedom of navigation, which is a core U.S. national security interest. These strikes are not connected to the broader conflict in Yemen," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.
The White House described the strikes as a "purely self-defense action."
"The intent of our strikes [was] 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," White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said Thursday.
U.S. officials also avoided attributing blame for the missile firings despite repeated questions from the press, only saying the missiles were fired from "Houthi-controlled territory."
"We don't know who was pulling the trigger, if you will, specifically," Cook said. "All I know is these strikes originated from Houthi-controlled territory. If somebody else is carrying this out in Houthi-controlled territory then I would encourage the Houthis to try and get that under control."
It was a stark contrast with comments from earlier in the week, when the Pentagon pledged to find out who fired the missiles and acknowledged that Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons in the past.
"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 Monday.
"It's no secret that Iran has been supplying them with the tools of war," he later added in reference to the Houthis.
On Thursday, Cook also avoided speculating on any role in the missile firings by Iran, who some experts believe supplied the Houthis with the missiles.
"Iran has played a role and has been supportive of the Houthi rebels more broadly in the conflict in Yemen and our message to those involved in that separate conflict is that they should return to the negotiating table consistent with where they were just a few months ago," he said.
Experts at The Washington Institute noted in a recent piece that an Oct. 1 missile attack against an Emrati ship by Houthi rebels in the same region likely employed a radar-guided C-802 antishipping missile supplied by Iran.
Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.), a leading advocate of a tough foreign policy toward Iran, said it was unacceptable that the Obama administration continues to relax financial sanctions on Iran while it supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“I am relieved the crew of the U.S.S. Mason remain safe and unharmed in the Red Sea after Iran-backed Houthi rebels repeatedly launched missile attacks at them," Kirk said in a statement.
"It’s counterproductive, absurd and unacceptable that the White House keeps unilaterally relaxing financial sanctions against the Iranian terror-sponsoring regime while Iran continues to actively support Houthi militants in Yemen that are trying to kill American servicemen and servicewomen in the Middle East," he said.