(January 3, 2024)
4:17 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone, for joining. Happy New Year. And thanks for joining the call to discuss the recent attacks in the Red Sea by the Houthis.
As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to a senior administration official, and it is embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
For your awareness, not for your reporting, on the call today we have [senior administration official].
With that, I’ll turn it over to you to kick us off, and then we can take some questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, everybody. Happy New Year.
I’m going to talk a little bit about the statement that was issued today with 13 of our very close allies and partners. But I’ll give a little bit of a background, including the events over the weekend in the Red Sea.
So, first, obviously, I think you’ve all been tracking the dangerous and unlawful reckless attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. And since November 19th, Houthi rebels from Yemen have attacked commercial vessels 23 times. They’ve been using a combination of anti-ship ballistic missiles — for the first time anti-ship ballistic missiles have been used anywhere, let alone against commercial ships — land attack cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and fast boats.
I have to say up top: The Houthis claim illegitimately that this is somehow tied to the situation in Gaza or something. But first of all, that is a completely illegitimate justification in any case, as the U.N. Security Council has also recognized in its statement on December 1.
But regardless, the attacks the Houthis are launching into the Red Sea are as indiscriminate targeting ships, most of which have had absolutely no connection whatsoever to Israel, including the incidents that just happened over the past weekend, which I will get to.
So, in response to this, we have had a significant diplomatic effort. I mentioned the U.N. Security Council, the first statement they had on December 1st. There’s also action in the U.N. Security Council as we speak, in New York. A statement on December 19th, joined by 44 countries all around the world issued by foreign ministries. And on the military side, on December 18th, of course, we formed a defensive naval coalition called Operation Prosperity Guardian with a number of countries from around the world, now with naval assets operating in coordination with us and the U.S. Navy and U.S. naval forces in the Red Sea.
So I can talk a little bit about that. But I think the significance of Operation Prosperity Guardian, which has now only been in place for really about two weeks, I think you saw the events over the weekend demonstrated the effectiveness of what is a coalition to help defend and protect shipping in the Red Sea.
So you may have been tracking this, but I can just go through these events very briefly.
On December 30th, the USS Gravely shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles in the Red Sea. These anti-ship ballistic missiles were targeting a Singapore-flagged, Denmark-operated and Denmark-owned ship, the Maersk Hangzhou. And I would just note that Singapore and Denmark both joined the statement today, which I’ll get to.
The Singapore-flagged, again, Denmark-owned/operated container ship requested assistance. And our ships, two ships, the USS Gravely and the USS Laboon, responded and, as I mentioned, shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles. Again, this is totally unprecedented, both the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles, let alone U.S. naval forces shooting them down when they’re traveling Mach 5. And, you know, this is an incredibly serious situation, and the level of professionalism of our naval forces and our sailors is truly extraordinary. So that was on December 30.
Over this past week, I’d say Jake Sullivan was with the President and briefing the President regularly, almost in real-time, as these events were unfolding.
The next day, on December 31st, the same ship, the Maersk Hangzhou, was attacked again by Yemeni forces in fast boats in what appears to be either a hijacking attempt or potentially a suicide attack — fast-boat attack against the ship and attempt to sink the ship. The launching of anti-ship ballistic missiles, of course the day before, a clear attempt, it seems, to sink the ship.
U.S. helicopters from the USS Eisenhower responded, and also the Gravely and other ships were in the area. They were fired upon by these fast boats’ return fire. U.S. force helicopters with crew-served weapons — I’m sorry, let me just go back. The small boats fired upon U.S. helicopters with crew-served weapons and small arms. U.S. naval helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area. And there was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment.
Again, I just want to call out the extraordinary professionalism of our forces operating in the Red Sea.
The President convened his national security team on the morning of New Year’s Day to talk about, again, the entire situation in the Red Sea, to discuss options and discuss a way forward.
I’m not going to get far ahead of the outcomes of that meeting, but one of them was what happened today. So, the President asked for an effort to talk to allies and partners with a statement that would very clearly — very clearly send a warning to the Houthis that they will bear full consequences and responsibility for any further attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
So the statement that issued today from 13 countries around the world, including from Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East, and this grouping of states — Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, and of course, United States — includes some of the world’s major shipping countries and, I think, speaks to the global impact of the Houthi actions.
I have to say this is happening in the Middle East, but we would respond to this type of threat anywhere around the world that is central to our national defense strategy and our national security strategy. And it is about international shipping — the protection of international commercial shipping lanes.
Today’s warning, as I mentioned, builds on the express consensus of countries around the globe. These ongoing attacks are a clear violation of international law, a threat to global commerce.
As for the warning — that the Houthis will bear full res- — full — will bear the consequences should their attacks in the Red Sea continue — we will let the statement speak for itself. I think it is very clear.
And I thought the ability for us to pull together these countries with such a clear and definitive statement in a fairly short amount of time, and building on the diplomatic and military work that had been done to date, we just wanted to draw attention to this, given the serious situation that we are confronting and that we were prepared to respond to, again, in order to protect global commerce and the freedom of navigation.
So with that, I will turn it over to questions. Again, I thank you for joining the call.
MODERATOR: Thanks. We’ll now turn it over to questions. If you’ve got a question, you can use the “Raise Your Hand” function here on Zoom, and we’ll get to you.
Our first question will go to Andrea Mitchell with NBC. Andrea, you should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thank you so much. The statement that you issued today was a very tough one in the coalition, obviously. So is that it? Would there be another warning if there’s another incident? Would you wait for an incident to respond, or would you take preemptive action? You know, are there any rules of engagement that you can share as we approach a really serious threat to international shipping? Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Andrea, thank you. Again, I’m not going to get into rules of engagement or any anticipatory further action. I would just say that I don’t — I would not anticipate another warning. I think this statement speaks very much for itself.
And we have acted defensively. And again, I think it’s a very clear warning. We’re going to let the statement stand for itself, and I’m just not going to get ahead of the process from here.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Our next question will go to Michael Gordon. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thank you. Have the Houthis been warned, through diplomatic channels in recent weeks, to desist from these sorts of attacks? What has been their response, if there have been such private warnings? And is the coalition prepared for a sustained military action, as the Gaza conflict is likely to drag on for some while and the Houthis, wrongly or rightly, have linked their actions to that conflict?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Michael. It’s a good question. I think, not surprisingly, I’m not going to talk about any private communications or private warnings one way or the other. And I also can’t speak for the actions or conduct of the Houthis.
What I can say is they have chosen to take action that affects global commerce. And this is, again, central to our national defense doctrine, national security strategy, entirely separate and distinct from anything else going on in the Middle East. This is the sort of threat that we would build coalitions to help confront.
I would just also note that every country makes its own decisions. So in terms of the defensive coalition and Operation Prosperity Guardian, a number of countries that are part of that coalition, their flags are public, some of them are not. And also, I think in any additional measures that might be taken, that we will act in concert with different collections of countries as we see fit.
But in terms of the private communications, I think it’s safe to presume, obviously, we do a lot behind the scenes, but I’m just not going to talk about on the call.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Our next question will go to MJ Lee. MJ, you should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hey, thank you so much. You were saying earlier that you wouldn’t get into too many details just on rules of engagement, answering Andrea’s question. I just wondered whether there are any actions that at this point the U.S. would say it absolutely would not take on this front because they would be seen as too escalatory.
And then also, just on the U.S.’s recent sinking of the Houthi boats, which was the first time that the U.S. has killed their fighters since the attacks began in the Red Sea, is it fair to say that if the Houthis sort of continue down this path, that this kind of action will continue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would say, in terms of escalatory, as I mentioned, these attacks started on November 19th, and we have pursued a very deliberate diplomatic campaign, a very deliberate economic campaign including sanctions, and a very deliberate defensive military campaign.
So I think we are not working to act in any way in an escalatory manner. We are acting — working to act in self-defense in order to protect global commerce and international shipping.
As for the Houthis who were killed in the incident on December 31st, I would just — they were killed in the process of trying to hijack a commercial vessel and firing on U.S. military forces. So it was a very clear act of self-defense. And surely in any situation like that, our forces know what to do. They have the authorities to do exactly what they did in that incident. And if that happened again, we would probably do the exact same thing.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Our next question will go to David Sanger. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thanks. Two quick follow-ups on these. First of all, your concern about attacking the missile emplacements or other arms in Yemen itself we’ve all been told was a concern that the truce between the Saudis and Yemen would be imperiled by that. Was that the only concern? Was that the only consideration that you’ve had along the way?
And just to clarify on the rules of engagement that led to the killing of the 10 fighters on December 31st, I assume that it wasn’t their attack on the ship that led to the three boats being sunk, that instead it was the direct firing on the U.S. forces that changed the nature of it. But if that is wrong, please tell us.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: David, on your second, I want to be a little bit cautious of what I go into. But we do have self-defense authorities for ships under certain flags. So we do have the ability to defend ships, particularly ships that are being attacked.
So, on December 30th, of course we shot down anti-ship ballistic missiles. And on December 31st, we confronted what appears to be a hijacking attempt or, as I mentioned, what might also have been a suicide fast-boat attack to try to sink that ship. So we responded, but we were also fired upon. So it was a very clear case of self-defense as well, just in terms of self-defense against our own forces.
On your question on the Yemeni civil war, look, these are really distinct things. I mean, what’s happening here is a threat to the Bab el-Mandeb, which is a major commercial shipping route; about 60 percent (inaudible) trade will go through that passageway.
And so as we would do, again, anywhere around the world, if you just read our national defense strategy and our core defense doctrine, we would be acting in a similar way, building partnerships with coalitions and — building coalitions with partners and allies, exactly as we’re doing here.
On the Yemen civil war, we have worked for three years to wind down that war. And basically, the civil war inside Yemen has effectively come to a halt. I don’t think there’s really been any fighting since March of last year, when the truce — when the U.N.-brokered truce went into effect. And that is something that we continue to support. We do not want to see the Yemen civil war reignite. And of course, we are in very close consultations with our partners throughout the Gulf, including the Saudis, on this.
But I really do think this is a different — this is just a different issue. This is about a threat to a major commercial shipping route, which is really distinct from the actual Yemeni civil war.
So we will act accordingly — again, consistent with our national defense strategy and national security strategy — when it comes to protecting international shipping, in coordination with coalitions and partners. We also still continue to support the efforts to wind down the Yemeni civil war, which has been such a horrific civil war. And we’ll continue to be in full cooperation with the U.N., Saudis, and others on that process, together with Hans Grundberg, the U.N. envoy.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Nadia. You should be able to unmute yourself. Nadia, you may be muted. We can’t hear you.
Next up we’ll go to Steve Holland. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hi there. Who is arming the Houthis? And what can be done to stem the flow of weapons to them?
And secondly, do you have any update on who was responsible for the bombing at the funeral of Soleimani?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Steve, Iran is arming the Houthis. And we have worked with (inaudible), through interdictions and other mechanisms and means, to confront and frustrate and try to stop that trade. So, but that has been ongoing.
The Houthis also have a lot of domestic capacity in terms of producing some of their own weaponry, again, with Iranian enabling and support. So I think that is very clear and it’s very much a part of this larger picture, which we’re very cognizant of and taking into full account as we work to, again, protect this very vital, critical shipping lane in the Red Sea.
I think John, from the podium, might have spoken a little bit to what happened in Tehran today. I think it’s — you know, just based on the MO, it does look like a terrorist attack as a type of thing we’ve seen ISIS do in the past. And as far as we’re aware, that’s kind of, I think, our going assumption at the moment.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ve got time for just a couple more. Hiba Nasr, you should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thank you, Eduardo. Hi. I wanted to ask Steve question, so I want to follow up. What’s your message — what’s the kind of messaging are you sending to Iran? Are they responding? What they are justifying the continuation of support of weapons for the Houthis?
And my second question: Now there are reports, not confirmed yet, but there are reports of the killing of an official — Hezbollah official in south Lebanon. This comes the second day after the killing of al-Arouri in Beirut. Are we approaching a regional war here, a second front, on a large scale? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, on the first question, on the Houthis, I think I answered in response to David’s — or to Steve’s question about Iran’s very clear role in enabling the Houthis. Of course, Iran claims that they do not have a role in this, and that’s just simply, obviously, not true. These are anti-ship ballistic missiles. They’re not the types of capabilities that the Houthis are able to have on their own. It’s very clearly coming from Iran. So I think that picture is very clear.
I think Iran tries to hold — kind of pretend it has a bit of a hands-off posture when it comes to its proxies around the region, but that is not the way that we view it. I think the picture here is very clear. And again, we will work consistent with our defense doctrine when it comes to protection of international shipping, particularly in the Red Sea. It’s a very serious — a very serious situation, and it is a global problem, which is why you have seen the response, I think, from so many countries all around the world.
I would say, on Arouri, obviously that was — I don’t want to get too far ahead of that, obviously, but he was on our most-wanted list — I think a $5 million Rewards for Justice, given that he has American blood on his hands, and a very senior member of Hamas. And the very senior members of Hamas must be held accountable, and he was held accountable. I think I’ll leave it at that. But in terms of that incident, it was very clearly, precisely targeted on Hamas.
The situation on the northern border with Israel and in southern Lebanon is something obviously we are in close consultations with the Israelis about. We have worked, from beginning of this crisis, to try to contain the crisis to Gaza. I know Nasrallah gave a speech today. I’ll let Hezbollah speak for itself. But I think from everything that we can tell, there is no clear desire for Hezbollah to go to war with Israel and vice versa. However, the border — the tension on the border is there because Hezbollah is firing across the border regularly at the Israelis, and the Israelis obviously return fire.
We support a diplomatic resolution to the northern border tension, and that’s something that we’re working on regularly with the Israelis and also in contact with the Lebanese. And I just met with the Lebanese foreign minister about an hour ago, and we have a diplomatic effort underway, when it comes to that issue, to try to help resolve some of the tension there. But I don’t want to — I think I’ll leave it at that.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Our next question will go to Missy Ryan. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thanks, Eduardo. Thanks, [senior administration official]. Just to ask a little bit more directly, could you just address the criticism that has come from some people on Capitol Hill, including the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, about, you know, the Biden administration being “weak” in dealing with this Houthi situation? The implication is that the U.S. could be striking directly against the Houthis. Could you address that directly?
And then secondly, what do we conclude from the fact that some of them, as closest allies in the Middle East, are not part of this statement that we had today or the Prosperity Guardian initiative? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, look, if you look at the action we’ve taken, we will act very forcefully when it comes to any threats against our people or our interests. We’re also going to do so in a very smart way that does not potentially draw us in deep to a situation that actually plays into the hands of some of these proxy groups.
But I would just point to the airstrikes we did on Christmas Day — three very strong airstrikes against Hezbollah in Iraq — and our ability to organize a grouping of partners with a statement we did today with a very serious warning to the Houthis, in addition to Prosperity Guardian and an awful lot of steel that is now in the water, working in concert with the U.S. Navy in the Red Sea.
So, you know, these things do take some time to put together. If someone has some shortcut option, again, I’m all ears. But we consult with Congress all the time. And I think we have provided pretty detailed briefings about what we’re doing and how we’re managing this.
On the Middle East, I would — it’s a good question. But, you know, this is — again, this is not really about the Middle East. This is about the protection of one of the major commerce routes of the world in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb.
If this was happening, again, anywhere else in the world, we would be acting the same way. And I think we want to keep it kind of distinct from the question that David asked about the Yemeni civil war and some of the other tensions in the region. That’s really not what this is about.
So we’ve been focused on building a coalition of global partners. And again, the statement today includes Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. But also Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, is also a member of the statement today and also a member of Prosperity Guardian.
I would say through our naval task forces in the region, Task Force 153, the kind of regional task forces, our partners in the Middle East, and those navies work hand-in-glove with us every single day.
But this specific threat is a global challenge. It is something that the United States, again, central to our defense doctrine, is what we do. And we are prepared to work with partners and allies around the world, again, to help protect these shipping lanes.
MODERATOR: Thanks. Our last question will go to Aamer Madhani. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Sorry, I think I hit that by mistake. My question was asked and answered.
MODERATOR: Okay, let’s then go back to Nadia. You should be able to unmute yourself. The last question.
Q Thank you, Eduardo. Thank you, [senior administration official], for doing this. Actually, one of my questions was asked, but let me ask you another question. There was a report that the Israelis have been asking the administration to keep USS Gerald Ford in the Mediterranean, yet you withdrew it. Was that out of confidence that there is no measure escalation, despite all this assassination that we’ve seen recently? Do you feel confident that what you have now is enough toward any larger scale of any regional war?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I’ll be very direct on your question. No, the deployment of the Ford out of the Mediterranean is actually being replaced and augmented, in many ways, by additional capabilities, including Marine expeditionary unit destroyers. And I think John might have spoken to this from the podium today.
We still have the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group operating in the region. Again, part of that strike group was responsible for the effective response on December 31st. And the amount of military force we have in the region is quite significant and is ready to respond to any contingency.
And when it comes to containing this overall conflict, we are prepared — again, through a combination of deterrence and being ready and with a very forward military presence in the Middle East region since this crisis began, which continues to this day — we are prepared for all contingencies. Of course, we hope, through diplomacy and other means, to contain the crisis to the extent we can. But we are prepared for all contingencies.
And I would say the Ford had been deployed, I think, for a year or so, and so it was time for it to come home. But we augmented the capability with additional assets in the Mediterranean. And then, of course, in the Arabian Gulf and elsewhere, we have significant naval and air assets that are ready to respond to any contingency throughout the region.
So I think that’s the — I’m sorry, did you ask a second question, or was that one question?
Q My second question was about the Saudis. So do you believe — just to follow up on that, do you believe that if there is any military attack against the Houthis, do they still have the incentive to go ahead and sign this deal end of the year? Well — I mean, sorry, not end of the year. We’re talking about this coming few months. Do you think they still have the motivation to do it regardless? Because some worried, as I think David Sanger’s question was indicating, that the Saudis were worried that if any attack or any escalation or a military confrontation with the Houthis, that might have some kind of reaction inside on the peace process, internal peace process in Yemen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think I’d answer it the same way. These truly are distinct problems. So this is about a response to international commercial shipping. And I think the overall arc of the Yemeni civil war and the violence there is being dealt with in a way, I think, diplomatically and quite effectively. Again, that process has been going on for some time, really since the U.N.-mediated truce went into effect in March of 2022, with a lot of diplomatic effort from the United States.
And I think we are — again, we talk to the Saudis almost every single day at multiple levels, including other partners in the Gulf. And the one reason that we’ve been very focused on building what is truly a global response to this particular problem, just — I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s just true — this is a global challenge. It affects shipping all around the world.
I would just make a point: The Houthis pirated a commercial vessel called the Galaxy Leader, which is still holds, along with its crew members. They’re being held hostage by the Houthis. And that crew is from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Mexico, and Romania. Again, just to put kind of a sense of the global dimension of this problem, over 40 countries around the world have been directly impacted by these attacks in the Red Sea.
So it truly is of a very different order and character than the Yemeni civil war, which we have been in deep — a deep diplomatic process with the Saudis and others in the region to bring that war ultimately to a close. So I think that’s the way to kind of think about those two problems.
I would also just — I want to add one thing, because there were a couple of questions on Hezbollah and our commitment to try to work, even as we maintain a very significant deterrent posture in the region, to work for a diplomatic resolution, if one can be found. But my colleague, Amos Hochstein, will be in Israel, I think as early as tomorrow, working on that. And of course, we have Secretary Blinken heading out to the region. I think he leaves tomorrow night, as well, for stops in a number of capitals and including, of course, Israel.
So, again, thank you very much for the call. And, again, thank you for the time.
MODERATOR: Thanks, [senior administration official]. And thanks, everyone, for joining. As a reminder, this call was on
background, attributable to a senior administration official, and the embargo is now lifted.
Thanks again, and have a great rest of your day.
4:48 P.M. EST