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American warships are prepared to intercept a convoy of Iranian ships suspected of carrying weapons to Houthi rebel forces in Yemen, senior defense and military officials told NBC News on Monday.
An Iranian convoy of freighters, escorted by warships from the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guard forces, appears headed for Yemen, the officials said.
They emphasized that while the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier group would be in position to intercept the convoy, an intercept could also be carried out by Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, which are patrolling the waters off Yemen.
Supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia has led Sunni Arab countries in carrying out more than three weeks of airstrikes targeting the rebels, who are backed by Iran and have seized parts of Yemen.
There is no indication that U.S. or other coalition warships have been in contact with the Iranians, but one official told NBC News, “They know we’re there.”
Some U.S. officials are concerned that the leak of the information is not good, coming at the same time as the United States and other countries try to reach a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
“Since this is now public, the Iranians may feel they've been backed into a corner” and attempt to run through any blockade set up by the coalition warships, one official said.
The deployment comes after a U.N. Security Council resolution approved last week imposed an arms embargo on leaders of the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, who have taken over much of Yemen.
The resolution passed in a 14-0 vote with Russia abstaining. Navy officials said Monday that the Roosevelt was moving through the Arabian Sea. A massive ship that carries F/A-18 fighter jets, the "TR" is seen more of a deterrent and show of force in the region.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest would not comment specifically on any Navy movements in Yemeni waters, but said the U.S. has concerns about Iran's "continued support for the Houthis.
"We have seen evidence that the Iranians are supplying weapons and other armed support to the Houthis in Yemen," Earnest said Monday. "That support will only contribute to greater violence in that country. These are exactly the kind of destabilizing activities that we have in mind when we raise concerns about Iran's destabilizing activities in the Middle East."
He added, "Iranians are acutely aware of our concerns for their continued support of the Houthis by sending them large shipments of weapons."