Joe Biden

Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials and Senior Military Official on Developments in the Middle East

January 12, 2024

Via Teleconference

8:15 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Hello, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us tonight for the call. As a reminder, this call is on background.

Joining us tonight we have [senior administration official], who will be referred to as a senior administration official, as well as [senior military official], who will be referred to as a senior military official.

We'll have our speakers deliver some remarks at the top, and then we'll take some of your questions. This call is not under any embargo but it is on background.

So with that, I'll turn it over to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thanks. And thanks, everybody, for being here.

Today, in response to ongoing and escalating Iranian-enabled Houthi attacks against commercial shipping transiting the Red Sea, the armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, conducted joint strikes against Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen.

This action is aimed specifically to disrupt and degrade Houthi capabilities to threaten global trade and freedom of navigation in one of the world's most critical waterways.

The target selected focused specifically on Houthi missile, radar, and UAV capabilities, the capabilities that are essential to the Houthis' campaign against commercial shipping in international waters.

This collective response follows one of the largest Houthi attacks in the Red Sea to date earlier this week. On Tuesday, January 9th, nearly 20 drones and multiple missiles were launched in multiple salvos directly against U.S. ships. This attack was defeated by the U.S. and UK naval forces working jointly as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, the defensive coalition established last month in response to these attacks.

If not for this defensive mission, we have no doubt that ships would have been struck, perhaps even sunk, including, in one case, a commercial ship full of jet fuel.

These reckless attacks have directly affected the citizens and cargo and commercial interests of more than 50 countries. Over a dozen shipping companies have now rerouted vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, increasing shipping and insurance costs and impacting the global economy. That is why we have seen broad consensus from countries around the world condemning these attacks as an unprecedented threat to global commerce.

As you saw this week, the U.N. Security Council issued a resolution condemning "in the strongest terms" -- and that's in quotes, "in the strongest terms" -- the now more than two dozen attacks against commercial vessels since November 19th, as well as condemning those who would provide arms and assistance to the Houthis in these attacks, with the primary supplier being Iran.

This resolution also took note of the right of states to act to defend their vessels in accordance with international law.

So today's collective action comes against a broad diplomatic backdrop and global condemnation of these ongoing attacks, including, as I mentioned, the largest attack to date just three days ago, specifically targeting U.S. vessels.

As I said at the top, the Houthis, with Iranian support, have targeted over 20 merchant vessels since November 19th, launching dozens of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles across the Red Sea. At least three ships have been hit. And we've been -- we've had extremely close calls, such as a ship, as I had mentioned, carrying U.S.-owned jet fuel that the Houthis targeted last month.

I'll run through briefly some key moments from this period.

On December 1st, the U.N. Security Council condemned Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and underscored the importance of the freedom of navigation. That statement called on the immediate end to attacks.

On December 18th, Secretary Austin announced the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, the 22-country defensive coalition, organized under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and the leadership of Coalition Task Force 153, to help defend against Houthi threats in the Red Sea.

On December 19th, 44 countries issued a multilateral statement condemning Houthi interference with navigational rights and freedoms in the Red Sea.

The President, President Biden, has been deeply engaged in these developments throughout this period on a near-daily basis through Jake Sullivan and our national security team. He directed the initial diplomatic response and then the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian as a defensive measure. The President spoke to the issue with leaders around the world, including our partners in Europe and in the region.

On the morning of New Year's Day, following attacks on a Denmark-owned ship called the Maersk Hangzhou, and the direct engagements by U.S. forces to repel that attack, the President convened his national security team to discuss options and the way forward.

The President directed his team to accelerate the pace of work at the U.N. in New York, to keep building out the multilateral coalition -- multinational coalition for potential military action, and to refine the possible targets of such action.

At that meeting, the President directed his team to further develop military options should they be required, but to first issue a final warning statement together with close partners and allies.

Two days later, on January 3rd, the United States and 13 other countries that represent some of the world's largest shippers issued a multilateral statement, warning that the Houthis will bear the full consequences of any further attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

That brings us to Tuesday, January 9th, where, again, we saw one of the largest Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, with nearly 20 drones and three missiles shot down by the U.S. and UK naval forces in an attack that was directly targeting a U.S. commercial vessel with U.S. military vessels alongside it.

As soon as that attack was defeated, the President again convened his national security team and was presented with military options for a collective response together with close partners.

At the end of that meeting, the President directed Secretary Austin to carry out this response, which led to the strikes that took place this evening.

Again, this collective action was conducted by the United States and the United Kingdom, with Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Bahrain providing additional support. It has also been endorsed by countries that joined the warning statement of January 3rd, including Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea. And we expect more supportive statements to come in overnight.

I'll close with a word on how this action relates to the broader tensions in the Middle East region.

As yesterday's U.N. Security Council resolution outlined, as well as the broad consensus that I mentioned earlier in this briefing makes clear, this is an issue about global commerce, the freedom of navigation, and threats to commercial vessels and international waterways.

The United States has carried a special and historic obligation to help protect and defend these arteries of global trade and commerce. And this action falls directly in line with that tradition. That is clearly reflected in both our National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. It is a key conviction of the President. And it is a commitment that we are prepared to uphold, acting together with partners and allies as we have done today.

The Houthis claim that their attacks on military and civilian vessels are somehow tied to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. That is completely baseless and illegitimate. The Houthis also claim to be targeting specifically Israeli-owned ships or ships bound for Israel. That is simply not true. They are firing indiscriminately on vessels with global ties. Most of the ships that have come under attack have nothing whatsoever to do with Israel. And even if they were -- even if that were not the case, it is no justification for these illegal attacks in international waterways.

At bottom, these actions present a threat to us and to the entire world. And our actions are focused on the dangers posed to the lives and crews of these vessels and the stability and security of global commerce throughout international waters.

The targets we selected were focused specifically on Houthi capabilities, as my DOD colleague can brief in fuller detail, and there is no intent to escalate the situation. The aim is to degrade the ability of the Houthis to continue carrying out these reckless attacks.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: We'll now turn it over to our next speaker.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you. Thank you, [senior administration official]. I will keep my remarks brief -- I imagine there's a high number of folks here on the phone -- so that we can get into questions.

As [senior administration official] mentioned, this was a joint strike conducted by the militaries of the United States and the United Kingdom, with non-operational support from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Bahrain, targeting Houthi-controlled facilities in Yemen.

The strikes were launched from air, surface, and subsurface platforms, and destroyed multiple targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. We conducted the strikes with a variety of manned aircraft from the United States Navy, United States Air Force, and the UK.

Precision-guided munitions were used to destroy the targets and also to minimize collateral damage. Let's emphasize that these strikes have no association and are complete and separate from Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is a defensive coalition currently comprised of 22 countries operating in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden.

The U.S. and UK forces that participated in these strikes remain well prepared to defend themselves as well as to continue to contribute to the defense of maritime traffic and other military vessels as part of the coalition in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden.

And with that, I think we can move to questions.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much. Our first question will go to Aamer Madhani with the Associated Press. Aamer, you should be able to unmute yourself.

Q: Hello. To what extent has this degraded the Houthis' capability to continue to carry out these strikes?

And then secondly, the President's statement notes that the strikes were carried out with the support of Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands. Can you detail what support those other countries provided?

And finally, were other countries asked to actually help carry out the strikes, and did only the UK agree?

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I'll address the very last part of the question and I'll turn the rest to my Pentagon colleague.

We're not going to get into all of our consultations operationally that we've conducted with a range of partners and allies. The list of countries that were involved and participated in the strikes has been made public. Beyond that, I'm not going to speak to other countries that were consulted.

But you will see, and I think already have seen, broad support for the actions taken by countries around the world.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official].

With regard to the first question and to the extent to which we've degraded Houthi capability, due to operational security and, you know, the vulnerability of revealing any intelligence sources, I can't give you an exact percentage aside to say that the aim of these strikes was very clear from the start and from the President, and it was to remove capability for the Houthis to target maritime vessels, whether they be commercial or military, in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden.

So I would characterize it as significant. And, unfortunately, due to operational security, I can't give you an exact percentage.

With regard to the contributions of our coalition partners, I can tell you clearly that the UK participated materially with fighter aircraft that actually participated in the strikes.

As to our other partners, I would refer you to them and allow them to reveal what their level of support was.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Natasha Bertrand with CNN. You should be able to unmute yourself.

Q: Hi there. Thanks for doing this. So a couple of questions. First, the Houthis are now claiming that they have already launched retaliatory attacks on U.S. and UK warships in the Red Sea. Have you seen signs of that? Is that happening right now?

Secondly, can you just go back to what you said about the attack on Tuesday, where you said that these missile and drone strikes were specifically targeting a U.S. vessel and other U.S., I guess, Navy assets were in the vicinity? How do you know that this was a U.S. vessel being targeted specifically? And what vessel was it? Was it a commercial ship?

Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Maybe I'll start, and then I'll turn it over to my colleague again.

On the Houthi response, I will let the Pentagon speak to what they have seen as they've observed the situation since the strikes took place. But what I would say is that while we fully expect this action to diminish the Houthis' capability and degrade it, and certainly over time to reduce their capacity and propensity to conduct these attacks, we would not be surprised to see some sort of response. I'll let my colleague describe, again, what we've seen up till this point.

When it comes to the attack that took place the other day, there were U.S. vessels, both naval vessels and commercial vessels, operating in the same rough area. The attack came in directly in the direction of those ships. So I will let, again, my Pentagon colleague speak to exactly what we think was being targeted. But again, those attacks were defeated and defeated at some distance from those ships -- both drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official].

To the first question on the Houthi response, as of right now, we have not seen any direct retaliatory action directed towards our U.S. or other coalition members in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, or Gulf of Aden. We remain prepared, of course, to defend ourselves. But we have not seen a response from the Houthis at this time.

With regard to the second question on determining which vessels are being targeted, again, you're talking about extremely professional crews with their -- with exquisite equipment. They're able to detect, track, and determine nearly precisely, you know, where these weapons are headed.

In the cases where they are not, then they still pose a threat based on the capability of the particular weapon. They fall certainly within an obligation to defend themselves and those around them. So they're more than able to determine that they're being targeted.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Jennifer Rubin. You should be able to unmute yourself.

Q: Thanks very much for doing this. Two questions. One, although Iran obviously supplies and provides intelligence to the Houthis, do you have any evidence to suggest that they were alerted before or gave any kind of approval?

And secondly, is there any economic, diplomatic, or other action contemplated directly against Iran, who is the Houthi sponsor?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I'll speak to the first part within the limits of what I can say, you know, given sources, methods, and the fact that we're speaking obviously publicly on this.

We have been quite clear about the fact that Iran is a primary, if not the primary, enabler or supporter, sponsor of the Houthis and that Iran has been involved operationally in the conduct of these attacks. They provided information and intelligence to the Houthis. They provided the Houthis the very capabilities that they have used to conduct these attacks. So we believe that they have been certainly involved in every phase of this.

And in terms of consequences on Iran, we have a longstanding and deep pressure campaign that the United States has conducted against Iran over a number of years, including related to their activities in Yemen and their sponsorship of other proxies around the region, other proxies who have conducted attacks on U.S. forces.

And I'm not going to telegraph any additional future actions, but suffice it to say we do hold Iran responsible for the role that they have played with the Houthis and with the other groups in the region that have conducted attacks against U.S. forces, and have made them aware of that.

MODERATOR: All right, next question will go to Jennifer Jacobs with Bloomberg.

Q: Thanks, guys. Couple things. There was a report that an embassy in Iraq was hit. Can you say if you know if that's true or false?

And then on Israel, can you say what the assessment is on whether Iran will react by calling for renewed attacks on Israel?

And then third thing, on the target list, can you say how many days or how many weeks it took CENTCOM to drop the target list?

Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll leave the last question to my Pentagon colleague.

On Iraq, I've seen nothing to indicate any activity along the lines that you just described in Iraq. Obviously, things unfolded in real time, and I'm now in a room talking to you all. But when I walked out of my office 15 minutes ago, I had no such information. So I guess I'll leave it at that.

In terms of attacks against Israel, I guess suffice it to say Iran sponsors a number of groups that conduct attacks on Israel on a daily basis, obviously starting with and including Hamas, with whom Israel is engaged in an armed conflict right now in real time in Gaza, but also including Hezbollah, including Shia militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and obviously including the Houthis.

So we have no reason to believe that there is anything related to this that we're seeing that is imminent, but nor would we be surprised if the sorts of attacks that Iran has sponsored, to the condemnation of much of the world, continue.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: With regard to targets, clearly, each of our combatant commanders across the globe is responsible for maintaining a wide variety of response options. Some of those response options would include the kinetic targeting of particular locations and capabilities. It's no different for the Houthi threat in Yemen. So the commander of Central Command has routinely maintained a series of response options.

For these particular targets, due to operational security, I cannot reveal the exact amount of time that it took to develop. I can only confirm that as a course of action, each of our combatant commanders maintain response options to include kinetic operations on a variety of targets as necessary.

MODERATOR: All right, last question. We'll go to Nick Schifrin. You should be able to unmute yourself.

Q: Thanks very much, guys, for doing this. To the senior military official, basic questions. Can you give us any more sense of how many targets there were across how many cities? And do you have an early assessment on whether the strike was successful or caused any collateral damage?

And for the senior administration official, a Western official tells me this was on the menu of options for strikes, this was around the higher end. Wondering if you'd be willing to agree with that.

And given what you said about expecting more attacks, do you have confidence you can degrade Houthi capabilities but less confidence you can deter future attacks?

Thanks.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Yeah, I'll talk to the first question.

As far as the number of targets and the assessment of the success of the strikes, as well as any collateral damage, those specifics will be forthcoming. So I refer you to Central Command for those as they come out here in the coming hours and days. But I don't have those exactly right now.

I can reemphasize to you that these targets were very specifically selected for minimizing the risk of collateral damage. We were absolutely not targeting civilian population centers. We were going after very specific capability in very specific locations with precision munitions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. So, in terms of where this falls on the menu of potential options, what I will say is what my Pentagon colleague said: This was a significant action and conducted with every objective and every expectation that will degrade in a significant way the Houthis' capability to launch exactly the sorts of attacks that they have conducted over the period of recent weeks.

You know, as to whether this will merely degrade or also deter, I guess I can't do better than what the President has said, which is that he will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.

So this may well not be the last word on the topic. And when we have more to say and more to do, you will hear from us.

MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone. That's all the time we had. As a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to a senior military official and a senior administration official. There's no embargo on the call so you're free to report. Thanks so much.

8:36 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials and Senior Military Official on Developments in the Middle East Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/369262

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