Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the head of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, revealed that Iran has played a significant role in the recent wave of ship attacks carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels during the Israel-Hamas conflict.
While he stopped short of directly implicating Tehran in individual attacks, Cooper acknowledged the broader involvement of Iran in these maritime assaults that have expanded beyond the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, encompassing a wider region in the Middle East.
Houthi attacks disrupt vital shipping routes amid global economic impact
Cooper described the Houthi actions as particularly significant, citing them as the most substantial attacks on merchant shipping in two generations.
Since November, the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, have launched at least 34 attacks on ships navigating the waterways leading up to Egypt’s Suez Canal.
These attacks have disrupted a vital route for energy and cargo transport from Asia and the Middle East to Europe, impacting the global economy.
While the Houthi rebels have attempted to justify their attacks by linking them to the Israel-Hamas conflict, their targets have increasingly had tenuous or no connections to Israel.
US airstrikes temporarily quell Houthi attacks, global economy still at risk
The United States has responded to this escalation with seven rounds of airstrikes targeting Houthi military sites and suspected missile launch sites, leading to a temporary reduction in Houthi attacks.
However, despite this temporary respite, the global economy faces risks as some ships opt for longer routes around Africa’s southern tip instead of the Suez Canal.
This shift in shipping routes has resulted in lower revenue for Egypt, affecting its already troubled economy and higher shipping costs with potential implications for global inflation.
When Vice Adm. Brad Cooper assumed command of the 5th Fleet in 2021, the primary shipping threats were concentrated around the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a significant portion of the world’s oil trade passes.
Iran’s role in escalating threats and Houthi attacks
Iran’s nuclear deal collapse had previously led to a series of attacks blamed on Iran, heightening tensions in the region.
Cooper highlighted the current distribution of threats from Iran’s proxies, stretching from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Recent drone attacks on shipping have been attributed to Iran, and even a U.S.-owned cargo vessel came under attack from the Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Aden.
While Iran has not directly engaged in the conflict between Israel and the U.S., Vice Adm. Cooper stressed that Iran has been providing crucial support to the Houthi attacks.
Iran’s overt support for Houthi attacks and parallels with Tanker War of 1980s
This support includes funding, resources, supplies, and training. He emphasized that Iran’s involvement in these attacks is far from secretive and is a matter of concern.
Vice Adm. Cooper likened the current ship attacks in the Middle East to the Tanker War of the 1980s, a period marked by attacks on oil tankers and heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
During that time, American naval vessels escorted reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers to ensure safe passage through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
Cooper clarified that there are no plans to reflag ships and provide escorted passage past Yemen.
Cooper discusses escalating threats, ongoing surveillance in Middle East
The reference to the Tanker War underscores the precarious situation in the wider Middle East, especially amid concerns of a broader regional conflict triggered by the Israel-Hamas war.
As Cooper highlighted, the region has become increasingly complex, necessitating ongoing surveillance and preparedness.
Under Vice Adm. Cooper’s leadership, the 5th Fleet has established Task Force 59, a drone fleet aimed at bolstering regional maritime patrols.
These drones, covering a vast area of Middle Eastern waters, aid in interdicting suspected drug and weapons shipments, enhancing security and surveillance capabilities.
Cooper’s concerns and ongoing threat posed by Houthi attacks
As Vice Adm. Cooper prepares to conclude his command in February, he acknowledged that the U.S. Navy and merchant shippers still face a severe threat from the Houthi rebels.
He emphasized the need for a decisive Houthi decision to halt attacks on international merchant ships.
The situation remains complex and volatile, underscoring the ongoing challenges faced by the U.S. Navy and global shipping.