U.S. Seizes Missile Parts Headed To Yemen Amid Reports Of New Iranian Threats (Updated)
The U.S. may be considering deploying up to 14,000 additional military personnel to the Middle East in the near future to counter Iran's moves.
The Pentagon has confirmed that the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Forrest Sherman seized a shipment of guided missile components of suspected Iranian origin last week that appeared to be heading for Houthi rebels in Yemen. This comes amid reports of possible new threats from Iran and its regional proxies, such as the Houthis, toward U.S. forces and their partners in the Middle East, including increased drone activity. In light of these and other developments, the U.S. government may now be considering doubling its force posture in the region, which could involve the deployment of up 14,000 additional troops.
Reports about Forrest Sherman's seizure first appeared on Dec. 4, 2019, but the actual incident occurred in the North Arabian Sea on Nov. 27. A boarding party consisting of Navy sailors and members of the U.S. Coast Guard boarded a dhow that was not flying a national flag of any kind and found the missile parts during a subsequent search.
The U.S. military has not definitively determined the origin of the unspecified components or their intended destination, but they are reportedly "advanced" and have hallmarks of Iranian-produced systems. "A more thorough investigation is underway," the Pentagon said in a statement to Reuters.
The Associated Press, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said that the personnel from the Forrest Sherman had seized a "significant cache," but did not give any specific details about the items found on the dhow or how many were found. Of course, this is not the first time that U.S. warships, or those belonging to American allies and regional partners, have uncovered weapons, ammunition, and other military hardware of apparent Iranian origin onboard dhows and other vessels bound for the Houthis. Forrest Sherman herself has even been involved in these seizures in the past.
The Iranian-backed Houthis have acquired an increasingly diverse and capable arsenal of missiles and drones in recent years, notably employing a new ground-launched land-attack cruise missile, known as the Quds-1, against Saudi Arabia earlier this year. The group has also launched suicide drones and ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia on numerous occasions. They have also claimed responsibility for unprecedented cruise missile and suicide drone strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure in September, though the United States has blamed Iran directly for those attacks.
The vast majority of the missile and drone designs that the Houthis employ are similar in form and function to Iranian designs, but differ in certain respects. This has raised questions about how much of the production of these systems is actually going on in Yemen and whether Iran may be developing derivatives specifically for regional proxies for added plausible deniability regarding its support for these groups.
The Forrest Sherman's seizure may be related, at least in part, to a separate report from CNN on Dec. 3 that the United States has a new stream of intelligence indicating potential threats from Iran and its proxies toward American forces and interested in the Middle East. "There has been consistent intelligence in the last several weeks," an unnamed official within President Donald Trump's Administration reportedly told the outlet.
CNN's sources provided no specifics on what this intelligence was or how it was obtained, but did say that it had to do with reported movements of Iranian personnel and military hardware. This, in turn, could indicate preparations to launch attacks, such as the ones on Saudi Arabia in September.
Also on Dec. 4, Newsweek reported, again citing unnamed U.S. government officials, that there had been an uptick in drone activity near U.S. forces at unspecified locations in the Middle East. The group or groups operating these unmanned aircraft is unclear, but there were reportedly indications that Iranian-supported militias under the direction of the Quds Force, the expeditionary arm of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were the ones flying them.
In addition to the Houthis in Yemen, Iran backs myriad armed groups across the Middle East, including in countries such as Iraq and Syria, where they often operate close to American forces. The United States has blamed Iranian-supported militias in Iraq for rocket and other indirect fire attacks near U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in recent years. Just on Dec. 3, 2019, several rockets landed near Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, where a significant contingent of American forces is located. No group has yet taken responsibility for that attack.
The Newsweek story stated that these were "suicide drones," but offered no additional information about the origins of that assessment. Newsweek's sources otherwise indicated that these small unmanned aircraft had been conducting what appeared to be simply intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and that they posed no immediate threat, which would seem to contradict the assertion that they were indeed suicide drones. The story did say that there were concerns that the drones might be gathering intelligence about potential targets for future strikes.
All of these details that have emerged today about Iranian and Iranian-linked activities, such as they are, are well in line with the relatively steady flow of official U.S. government statements and media reports that first began appearing in May 2019. This notably started with reports that Iran was either deploying missiles on boats or otherwise moving them around the Middle East that way, potentially to launch attacks, which is extremely similar to the stories that are emerging now.
This reported intelligence, coupled with actual and alleged malign behavior from Iran, including the aforementioned strikes on Saudi Arabia, the seizure of multiple foreign oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the shootdown of a U.S. Navy drone over the Gulf of Oman, and a spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, has led to the deployment of approximately 14,000 additional U.S. military personnel to the Middle East over the past seven months. This has included a particularly significant new deployment of personnel, including combat jets and air and missile defense systems, to Saudi Arabia in recent months.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 4 that all of this has prompted the U.S. military to consider possibly doubling that figure, sending another 14,000 personnel to the region in the coming year. It's unclear how much of this would necessarily be additive to the overall total force posture and how much of this might be simply rotations of fresh troops to relieve existing units in place. For instance, the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, along with the rest of its strike group, is presently heading toward the region where it will likely take the place of the USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group. Truman was supposed to have arrived earlier in the year, but was delayed due to the need for unforeseen maintenance.
John Rood, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, did allude to new deployments to the Middle East in the near future to counter Iranian moves when speaking to reporters on Dec. 4. "Watch this space," he said. "I think we're going to be dynamic in our deployments, in our response and how we message. In private, you should know we've sent very clear and blunt signals to the Iranian government about the potential consequences of aggression."
It's not clear what might be driving Iran's latest geopolitical maneuvers. The country has been, at least to some degree, preoccupied with major domestic protests across the country that prompted the regime in Tehran to launch a violent crackdown in which security forces have killed at least 200 demonstrators already. It is the worst violence in decades and the country's president Hassan Rouhani recently called for the release of protesters who have been rounded up in the clashes.
"We've seen a downtick with regard to Iranian actions, and that's a good thing," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had told reporters on Nov. 13, 2019. "The door remains open to sit down with them anytime, anywhere to discuss the way forward diplomatically."
At the same time, Iran has repeatedly sparred rhetorically with the United States this year over crippling American sanctions and has also resumed various nuclear activities that are prohibited under an international agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or simply the Iran Nuclear Deal. The United States pulled out of the deal in 2018 and the Iranian government has been seeking to pressure the remaining parties, especially American allies France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to continue to abide by its terms and make additional concessions ever since.
How the U.S. military moves to counter the latest reported Iranian-linked activity in the Middle East, and whether or not it decides to move ahead with new, large-scale troop deployments, as well as how Tehran might react in light of those new developments, remains to be seen. It does appear that the U.S. and Iranian governments are headed toward yet another period of heightened tensions in an already turbulent region.
UPDATE: 10:15pm EST—
The Pentagon has disputed The Wall Street Journal's reporting, with Press Secretary Alyssa Farah saying the U.S. military has no plans to send 14,000 additional personnel to the region in the near future.
On Dec. 4, 2019, The New York Times also reported Iran had been moving stockpiles of short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq, raising further concerns that Iranian-backed militias could use the weapons in future strikes against U.S. personnel in that country or elsewhere in the region or target American allies and partners. CNN subsequently reported that these missiles had arrived in Iraq "in recent weeks." Neither outlet identified the type or types of missiles in question or how many the U.S. government believes are now in Iraq.
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