US Had Secret Talks with Iran About Houthi Red Sea Shipping Attacks in January

The Financial Times has a curious planted story as its lead offering: US held secret talks with Iran over Red Sea attacks. The reason this piece was almost certainly planted, as opposed to leaked, is that it names the names of the participants. But keep in mind that things are so fraught between the two countries that the discussions were indirect: Oman officials carried messages between the two teams. They were also allegedly the first communications in ten months… and two, perhaps closer to three, months after the conflict in Gaza began.

Forgive me for engaging in a close reading of this piece, since it may represent a shift in US messaging about Iran. It’s surprisingly even handed by Western media standards in its treatment of Iran, which is not to say that it also does not have some key omissions.

The article describes how it was a White House, nat State Department, team went to the Middle East in January. Iran’s envoy was its deputy foreign minister, who also handles Iran’s nuclear negotiations. The meetings focused on the US’ key desire, that Someone Do Something about Houthis shelling of Red Sea cargoes, particularly ones that the Houthis know or believe to be carrying cargoes to or from Israel, or ore owned by Israel or allied interests. Recall, which this story does not mention, that it was also in January the US took the stunningly embarrassing or presumptuous move of approaching China to see if China could pressure Iran to leash and collar the Houthis. Why China would do that even if it could, with no report of the US offering a quid pro quo. was a source of much bafflement.

Admittedly, China did go so far as to make an apple-pie-and-motherhood statement pressing the Houthis publicly to stop messing with Red Sea shipping and also “urge[d] all parties to stop fueling the tensions.” That could be read as a coded way to say that the US on behalf of Israel should stop blocking ceasefire resolutions in the UN and the US should do more to curb the Israel genocide in Gaza.

That came after a Reuters exclusive, which some experts questioned, said that China had in fact had several sessions with Tehran officials. A casual reader would think that China was making its case for Iran to get the Houthis to stop interfering with all Red Sea shipping. But the story makes clear that China was interceding on behalf of its own shipments:

“Basically, China says: ‘If our interests are harmed in any way, it will impact our business with Tehran. So tell the Houthis to show restraint’,” said one Iranian official briefed on the talks, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

It seems the US did not deem the Chinese action to be sufficient. Jake Sullivan then sought and got a meeting with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in Bangkok, which was arranged on short notice. It was a 12-hour “candid” talk, so the topics went far beyond Red Sea shipping. Nevertheless, the sudden scheduling suggests that was a significant driver. The South China Morning Post later confirmed no real progress was made.

So one has to wonder why this story is running now. Perhaps the US feels the need as to why it has been unable to curb the Houthis, and the Biden Administration wants to show it really really tried, even sort of sitting down with those nasty Iranians. That could also account for the shift in the positioning of the Iranians. Western press coverage virtually without exception bangs on about Iran as if it is orchestrating the action of all of the members of the so-called Resistance: Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is not affiliated with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

There are some noteworthy subtexts to the story. One is that it comes through that the US either was taking an imperious tone towards Iran or else felt the need to present itself as being tough to satisfy rabid Congresscritters. For instance, this bit comes off as lecturing:

US officials see an indirect channel with Iran as “a method for raising the full range of threats emanating from Iran”, a person familiar with the matter said. That included conveying “what they need to do in order to prevent a wider conflict, as they claim to want”.

It also presupposes that Iran can control its allies,. The article does recount the Iranian officials trying to disabuse the US of that idea:

Since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel triggered the war, Iran-backed Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant movement, has traded daily cross-border fire with Israel; the Houthis have attacked dozens of ships, including merchant shipping and US naval vessels; and Iranian-aligned Iraqi militias have launched scores of missiles and drones against American forces in Iraq and Syria.

US officials have repeatedly accused Tehran of supplying the Houthis with drones, missiles and intelligence to conduct their attacks on shipping.

Iran acknowledges its political support for the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and have justified their attacks as support for the Palestinians. However, Tehran insists the rebels act independently.

“Iran has repeatedly said it only has a form of spiritual influence [over the rebels]. They can’t dictate to the Houthis, but they can negotiate and talk,” an Iranian official said.

A striking omission is that the US backed the Saudi coalition that waged a seven-year war against Yemen. One would think that would make the Houthis, more properly called Ansar-Allah, not exactly receptive to US entreaties even if Iran were to push a bit.

The Financial Times also describes what appears to have been a bit of a game over the 85 retaliatory strikes the US made after three US servicemembers died in what were alleged to be Quds (as in Iran) strikes. The press depicted the soldiers as having been in Jordan. but Jordan never complained as one would expect. Many experts, such as Larry Johnson and Scott Ritter, said they were pretty clearly in Syria, where the US has no business being, except, as Donald Trump put it, to steal Syria’s oil.

The Financial Times article concedes the base operations, which included what I infer was a forward base, were on the “Jordanian-Syrian border.”

Recall the US attacks were launched five days later, which is on the leisurely side. That seems to have been designed to allow Iran to move some personnel out of the way:

After US President Joe Biden vowed to hold accountable those behind the attack, Iran withdrew senior commanders of its elite Revolutionary Guards from Syria. Days later, on February 2, American forces carried out a wave of attacks against Iranian-affiliated forces in Syria and Iraq.

The pink paper also depicts Iran as having been well behaved since then:

No attacks have been launched against American bases in Iraq and Syria since February 4, with US officials saying there have been indications that Tehran has worked to rein in the Iraqi militias.

The Iranian official said that when Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Qods force, the wing of the guards responsible for overseas operations, visited Baghdad last month he told the Iraqi militias to “manage their behaviour in a way that will not allow America to engage Iran”.

While Iran’s ultimate goal is to drive American forces out of Iraq and Syria, Tehran has made clear it wants to avoid a direct conflict with the US or Israel, and to avoid a full-blown regional war.

The story next discusses how the Houthis are still firing on Red Sea ships. And it continues with the schizophrenic position that the Houthis don’t take orders from Tehran but the Persian state nevertheless must rein them in:

US officials acknowledge that military action alone will not be enough to deter the Houthis, and believe that ultimately Tehran will need to pressure the group to curb its activities.

Although the Houthis are less ideologically close to Tehran than other militant groups, the relationship has deepened as the movement has become an increasingly important member of the “axis of resistance” backed by Iran.

Finally, this article (and the Western press generally) has not yet reported on the Houthis testing a hypersonic missile:

Mind you, this has yet to be confirmed, but if so, it will rattle nerves in the neighborhood. And Iran will be blamed for helping.

However, the article also confirms that both the Biden Administration and Iran do not want the conflict in Gaza to escalate. However, the US still acts if that can be achieved by trying to manage Israel’s opponents, as opposed to putting the kibosh on Israel’s genocidal campaign.

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  1. James E Keenan

    Yves, what is the difference, in your understanding, between a story that is planted and one that is leaked (first ‘graph)?

    1. Alan Roxdale

      The planted stories tend to be much more flattering to insiders. e.g. Jake Sullivan carefully coordinating with his Chinese counterparts. A leak on the other hand would discuss the the realities of the French storming out of farcical joint fleet proposals, and the ongoing (unsuccessful) efforts of certain ships to make a mad dash through the Red Sea.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, both.

        In any case, the stock in trade of most, but not all, FT hacks. I know some and have done my fair share of both. If you’re a stenographer, it beats working. Plus one can expense the entertainment.

        1. cousinAdam

          Thank you, Colonel! Your insightful but politely modest commentary always brings a smile. You are a bright light in this wonderful constellation that is the NC commentariat. Go well and carry on, Sir!

  2. John

    The final sentence says it all. The US can put an end to the obscenity that is the Gaza “war.”
    Scott Ritter said in a chat with the Judge that Israel through its lobby in the US owns congress, owns the government. My sentiments exactly. It continues because politics, because elections, because careers. Who wants a career as a puppet?

  3. The Rev Kev

    Does Washington even understand the relationship between groups like those in Yemen and Iran itself? I can see it now. The US sends that diplomatic delegation to try to talk to the Iranians about making Ansar-Allah climb down from their tree. After a few hours a message is passed back to the delegation from the Iranians saying. ‘We’re not the boss of them. Sorry.’

    1. Taufiq Al-Thawry

      It appears not – I’ve casually researched many of the hawk/neocon think tanks and their overviews on the Axis of Resistance. They all seem to believe what is commonly reported in the press – that the various groups are all proxies taking orders from Tehran. Surprisingly, the dossiers even seem to ignore the leadership role of Nasrallah among the Axis.

      It’s kinda shocking that they would actually be this aloof, but I was actually in military intelligence for a handful of years in the 2000s and, while I was certainly not a high level analyst, I got the gist enough to recognize that our intelligence apparatus is very much in the same shape as other aspects of our military industrial complex

      1. cousinAdam

        Thanks for this. I doubt much has changed since then…… it may indeed be time for the Hegemon to bend over and ‘take the pain’. I can’t help but be reminded of Qaddafi (shudder).

  4. Altandmain

    Although the Western media won’t report it, up until this point, the Ansar Allah or as they are known in the West, the Houthis have shown restraint and escalation management. Their goal was always to try to compel a legitimate Palestine state, not to infect maximum casualties. Now with the hypersonic missiles, they are escalating.

    I don’t think that the neocons are capable of coming to terms with the fact that they are making it worse. Trying to bomb Yemen isn’t going to change the outcome. Yemen has been attacked for years as a part of the US proxy war with Saudi Arabia where US pilots participated in.

    Unless the US stands up to Israel, nothing is going to change. Given how corrupt and owned by AIPAC the US Congress is, it is pointless to discuss this. The other problem is that the Biden administration is full of ideologues who are very supportive of the Israelis no matter what.

    Even though they would win a conventional war, Iran doesn’t want to fight if they don’t have to. Iran is finally improving its economy thanks to tighter ties with Russia and China. They don’t want to jeopardize that.

    I think that the US and Israel are going to find out the hard way that Ansar Allah does have better capabilities.

    The question becomes what the US will do. If Biden and the neocons are truly insane, they will try a ground invasion of Yemen. I wouldn’t put it past Biden and his ideologues to do something that ridiculous.

  5. Victor Sciamarelli

    Remarkably, Ansar-Allah, aka the Houthis, created a naval blockade without a navy of their own. They managed to do it from land, and from what I’ve read so far, they’ve done it on the cheap.
    I think they deserve an award for creativity, like an Oscar, or something from the US Chamber of Commerce for a massive increase in productivity. Maybe there’s a blockbuster war movie here, too.

  6. José Freitas

    The idea that Ansarallah is capable of fielding hypersonic missiles, even if technically assisted by Iran, while the US hás been failing hypersonic tests year after year, is just hilarious.

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