US Sec Def Hosts 45 Parties in Virtual Meeting on Houthi Threats to International Shipping

In parallel, the State Department, European Union and NATO, along with 44 allies and partners released a statement that also condemned the Houthi attacks.
A handout picture, released by Bahrain's official news agency on Nov. 19, 2021, shows Bahrain's Minister for Defense Affairs Abdulla bin Hasan Al-Nuaimi receiving the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Manama (Photo: AFP)
A handout picture, released by Bahrain's official news agency on Nov. 19, 2021, shows Bahrain's Minister for Defense Affairs Abdulla bin Hasan Al-Nuaimi receiving the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Manama (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin chaired a virtual meeting of 43 countries plus NATO and the European Union. 

The purpose of the meeting, according to a readout provided by Pentagon Press Secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, was “to discuss the increased threat to maritime security” arising from Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

In parallel, the State Department, along with the European Union and NATO, released a statement, also on Tuesday, condemning the Houthi attacks. According to the statement, “a group representing 44 Allies and partner nations” also endorsed it.

In addition to the physical dangers to the crews and their ships, the Houthis’ assaults are imposing economic costs. Those costs come at a time when the U.S. and Europe have begun to recover from the inflationary pressures created by the COVID lockdowns, as well as those arising from the boycott of Russian oil, because of its assault on Ukraine.

“The world’s largest shipping companies have started to reroute vessels away from the Red Sea,” where they are vulnerable to Houthi attacks, “creating delays and extra costs that could be felt around the world through higher prices for oil and other imported goods,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Thus, if security for Red Sea shipping is not restored in a reasonable timeframe and if shipping companies persist in using the much longer route around Africa, via the Cape of Good Hope, the continued Houthi attacks could even cause political problems, particularly in democracies, where voters regularly express their anger at the polls. 

It is even possible that such renewed inflation could be a factor in next year’s U.S. elections, so it would seem that the Biden administration has a strong motive for addressing this threat.   

Virtual Defense Ministerial

During the meeting of senior defense figures chaired by Secretary Austin, “the Commander of U.S. Central Command, General Kurilla, and the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Cooper, briefed participants that the Houthis had conducted over 100 uncrewed aerial systems [drones] and ballistic missile attacks, targeting 10 merchant vessels involving more than 35 different nations,” Ryder’s readout of the meeting explained.

On Nov. 19, the Houthis seized a merchant ship, the Galaxy Leader, along with its 25 member crew, and they continue to hold both the crew and ship hostage in Yemen.

That incident marked the first time the Houthis had actually seized a ship, and they produced a slick propaganda video about it. It showed them moving in military formation, as they descended by ropes from helicopters to seize control of the vessel.

As the Associated Press reported two days later, citing an unnamed U.S. defense official, “This has all the signs these people were trained by a professional military, which could clearly be Iran.”

“To address this unprecedented series of attacks,” the Pentagon readout of Tuesday’s meeting continued, “the Secretary urged participants” to work with U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, as well as join the naval task force that the U.S. is assembling to protect Red Sea shipping.

Read More: US Sec Def Announces Coalition to Defend Shipping Against Houthi Attacks

Foreign Ministers’ Statement

The statement released by the State Department, Josep Borel, on behalf of the European Union, of which he is the High Representative, and NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as the 44 member group of allies and partners, was clearly meant to provide political support for the defense ministerial.

“The undersigned condemn Houthi interference with navigational rights and freedoms in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, particularly the Red Sea,” the statement began.

The statement also condemned the seizure of the Galaxy Leader, calling on the Houthis to release “the crew and ship immediately and to cease additional attacks on commercial vessels in the region’s vital waterways.”

What About Iran?

Neither statement, whether issued by the Pentagon or the State Department, mentioned Iranian support for the Houthis, including in their seizure of the Galaxy Leader—in contrast to what the unnamed U.S. defense official told the Associated Press.

Nor will U.S. officials say it, at least not on the record. This has been a constant in the Biden administration’s approach to the attacks on vital interests of the U.S. and its allies since Oct. 7, when the war between Hamas and Israel began, after Hamas launched its brutal cross-border assault.

In the two months since, U.S. officials have been extraordinarily reluctant to identify Iran’s role—although that hesitation was recently overcome with regard to attacks on U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.

Read More: U.S. Cites Iran, as Militias Attack Numerous Sites in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and Syria

And the European Union has been just as bad, if not more so, Indeed, Borrell was one of the last hold-outs on the failed effort to renew the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which Donald Trump left in 2018. It was as if the EU leader failed to recognize that the agreement was fundamentally flawed, because, as its critics complained, it had “sunset clauses” and was limited in time, and, instead, blamed the Trump administration for abrogating it.

Read More: EU-sponsored Iran nuclear talks end, again, with no agreement

Thus, on Tuesday, John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, one of the more articulate and tough-minded U.S. Spokespersons declined to say, even when pressed, that Iran was involved in the Houthis’ attacks.

“They are certainly providing the means, the tools, the capabilities, the weapons through which the Houthis are conducting these attacks,” Kirby said.  “The Houthis may be pulling the trigger,” he continued, but “Iran is giving them the guns.”

But he would not say that Iran was directly involved or that there was coordination between Iran and the Houthis, although it certainly seems there was. As the Institute for the Study of War has said, “Iran and its so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to support their objective of expelling U.S. forces from the Middle East.”

As Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Kurdistan 24, “The Houthis, thanks to Iranian support, are helping transpose Tehran’s threats to maritime traffic from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.”

Moreover, Ben Taleblu added, “As long as this new naval force does not strike back or help underwrite deterrence by punishment (i.e. direct military responses), it will merely be a more expensive addition to the architecture of deterrence by denial in the region.”