WASHINGTON : Escalating Iran-backed attacks against global commercial shipping in the Red Sea have heightened pressure on the Biden administration as officials scramble to protect trade while trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Tehran.
The U.S. Navy said late Saturday that two more vessels had been attacked that day by Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, bringing the number of commercial ships attacked near a crucial passageway between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to 15. The Pentagon said earlier in the day that a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean was struck by a drone launched directly from Iran, a claim Tehran denied.
The shipping attacks are part of a broader regional confrontation between Iran’s allies and the U.S. and Israel, and are increasing. A declassified document from the Defense Department, shows Houthi attacks on ships escalated during the first half of December to eight incidents, compared with just three during the last half of November.
The Houthi attacks have created a new front in the battle between Israel and Hamas and are just the latest test of Washington’s ability to support its closest Middle East ally while trying to contain the conflict from spilling over into a regional war.
“Everyone, including Iran, is trying to avoid escalating and falling off the ladder,” said Andrew Tabler, a former Middle-East director at the White House’s National Security Council.
Yemen has been engulfed in a civil war for nearly 10 years, with Iran backing the Houthis, who control the capital and other large parts of the country. After Israel responded to Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault by launching a military operation against Gaza, the Houthis directed attacks at targets they associated with Israel, while other Tehran-aligned militias have launched missiles and drones at U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has also targeted its rockets at Northern Israel.
The Houthi attacks prompted the U.S. and allies to deploy naval ships to deter further strikes, a move that has helped ease concerns among some shippers. On Sunday, the shipping and logistics company A.P. Moller-Maersk said the U.S.-led effort had prompted a decision to take steps to resume sending container ships through the Red Sea.
But other companies that have stopped voyages through the waterway, including BP PLC of the U.K. and Equinor of Norway, have yet to return.
On Sunday, the Houthis warned of more attacks in response to the arrival of U.S. warships. “The threat to international maritime navigation results from the militarization of the Red Sea by the United States and its allies,” Mohammed Abdul Salam, a spokesman for the group, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
U.S. officials are pushing the Israelis to wind down this phase of the conflict in Gaza quickly, in the hope that doing so would curb the attacks in the Red Sea. But there is a debate, within the Biden administration and between the U.S. and Israel, over how to respond to the attacks in the Red Sea.
Some inside the U.S. government would like to avoid having to conduct a strike against the Houthis now, choosing to sidestep a provocation that could widen the conflict beyond its current scope. Others say the U.S. should send a signal to the Houthis soon.
But Washington also sees the Houthis as a wild card whose conduct isn’t always predictable.
The attacks, as described by sailors who spoke to The Wall Street Journal, appear to include attempts to hijack the ships.
Late Saturday, the crew of the Norwegian-flagged Blaamanen was on deck near Yemen’s coastline when they heard an approaching buzzing sound. Minutes later, a ball of fire exploded in the night, according to a sailor on board.
“It was terrifying,” the crew member said.
U.S. Central Command said later that the Houthis had unsuccessfully launched a drone at the Norwegian-flagged tanker, which the U.S. Navy later escorted through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on its way to India. The Blaamanen’s operator and owner, Hansa Tankers, on Sunday confirmed a drone had narrowly missed the vessel.
Ten days earlier, the Bermuda-registered Ardmore Encounter was on its way to deliver Indian jet fuel to Western Europe, when a skiff with gun-toting men on board appeared. Someone claiming to be with Yemen’s navy made contact on the tanker’s emergency radio channel, ordering the ship to move to a nearby terminal controlled by the Houthis, or be attacked, according to a member of the crew.
“We refused and we were fired upon,” the crew member recounted.
The attackers fired two missiles at the vessel, but both missed their target. The captain made a distress call, prompting a nearby U.S. warship to move in to protect the tanker.
The USS Mason intercepted a drone that was also launched by the Houthis, according to the Defense Department and British security consulting firm Ambrey, which both corroborated the sailor’s account. “We were lucky enough to continue our voyage,” the crew member said.
The Ardmore’s manager Ardmore Shipping didn’t return a request for comment. Its nominal owner, Ballycotton Shipco in the Marshall Islands, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The conflict in the Red Sea—where about 12% of the world’s seaborne trade transits—and in nearby shipping lanes, is forcing shippers to delay deliveries from Asia to Europe by sailing around Southern Africa rather than pass through the Suez Canal
“This will have a significant cost impact,” said Mads Drejer, the chief operations officer at Denmark’s Scan Global Logistics. “There are simply not enough vessels for each roundtrip considering that additional vessels are now needed to maintain a weekly schedule.”
Sen. Bill Hagerty, a Tennessee Republican, told Fox News on Dec. 24 that Iran has been emboldened by what he described as inconsistent messages from the administration. “We have to maintain freedom of navigation operations in the seas,” said Hagarty, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We cannot cede that to Iran.”
A spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, defended the administration’s policy on Iran, including establishing a multinational naval force for the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping. “We have been outspoken about the danger of Iran’s destabilizing actions, and have forcefully condemned the direct threat their support of the Houthis presents to international commerce and maritime security,” she said.
On Saturday, India sent the naval ship Mormugao to escort the Israeli-connected Chem Pluto after it was attacked. The vessel was then brought to Mumbai to check for explosives.
Later in the day, the U.S. said the Houthis had attacked the Sai Baba, a tanker loaded with Russian crude oil pumped by Kremlin-connected Rosneft and destined for an Indian refinery. A spokesman for the Houthis blamed a U.S. warship for firing a missile after spotting a Yemeni reconnaissance plane.
The Russian government didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
The U.S. has become increasingly concerned about Iran’s direct involvement of Iranian actors in the shipping war. On Friday, Washington said Iranian forces had been providing the Houthis real-time intelligence as well as weaponry, including drones and missiles, to target ships passing through the Red Sea.
Yet the attacks also illustrate the tensions inside Iran’s regime. Iranian military operations abroad are generally carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a paramilitary force that operates autonomously from the civilian government and often contradicts its diplomatic agenda.
The administration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, which was rattled last year by civil unrest, has tried to keep its distance from the attacks to avoid alienating the U.S.
On Sunday, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied Tehran was involved in targeting Israeli interests, according to Press TV, a state-owned news outlet.
In mid-December, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told his Lebanese counterpart Abdallah Bou Habib that he was encouraging Tehran’s allies not to escalate tensions, according to Lebanese officials. Even so, he also indicated that the key to stopping the attacks was a truce between Israel and Hamas.
“If there is a cease-fire in Gaza, there will be a cease-fire all over the region,” he said, according to the officials.