WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Tuesday played down the role of the U.S. aircraft carrier that is steaming toward the waters off Yemen, saying the USS Theodore Roosevelt will primarily be there to protect freedom of navigation.
The massive carrier will join eight other Navy ships in the waters around Yemen amid reports that nine Iranian ships are heading that way, possibly carrying arms for the Shiite Houthi rebels. Such shipments would be in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, and several of the other Navy ships contain teams designed to board naval vessels if there are concerns the ships are carrying illegal or improper cargo.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Roosevelt's primary purpose is to ensure goods can transit safely through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
But he also said "a specific arms shipment from the Iranians, intended for the Houthis, would be a pretty clear violation of the United Nations Security Council embargo," Earnest said. "No doubt about that."
Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Roosevelt is there to assure the waterways are open. But, he added: "They have moved to that area in response to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen. Many have asked me whether or not they are there because of the Iranian ship convoy or flotilla that is also in the area. That is certainly one of the factors."
The Roosevelt also brings to the situation off Yemen a strong command and control function that could help coordinate any efforts by the other U.S. Navy ships. Carriers don't routinely carry search and seizure teams, and generally would play no role in any interdiction, other than to be a strong show of U.S. military might.
Earnest and other U.S. officials have declined to say what would happen if the Iranian ships try to get into Yemeni ports, or whether the U.S. would be willing to conduct any kind of contested boarding if the Iranian ships refuse to allow a search. He also wouldn't say whether the U.S. notified Iran in advance about the deployment.
"Right now, their ships are in international waters," President Barack Obama said Tuesday in an MSNBC interview. "What we've said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that's a problem. And we're not sending them obscure messages — we send them very direct messages about it."
Recently, U.S. forces requested and received permission to board a Panamanian ship that they thought may be carrying weapons to Yemen. No weapons were found on board. Most ship boardings done by the U.S. are consensual.
Saudi Arabia and several of its allies, mainly Gulf Arab countries, have been trying to drive back the rebels, who seized the capital of Sanaa in September and have overrun many other northern provinces with the help of security forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The U.S. supported the Saudi airstrike campaign, which ended Tuesday and will evolve into a new drive to push the rebels out.
Western governments and Sunni Arab countries say the Houthis get their arms from Iran. Tehran and the rebels deny that, although the Islamic Republic has provided political and humanitarian support to the Shiite group.
Associated Press video journalist Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.