Amid reports that Iranian ships may be in transit to provide arms to Shiite rebels in Yemen, risking a confrontation with U.S. warships, President Obama has delivered a blunt warning.
“Right now their ships are in international waters,” Obama said Tuesday in an interview with msnbc’s Chris Matthews, which aired in full on "Hardball." “There’s a reason why we keep some of our ships in the Persian Gulf region and that is to make sure we maintain freedom of navigation. And what we’ve said to them is if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem."
The president said Iranian involvement would only complicate efforts to find a solution to the Yemen conflict, in which Shiite rebels known as Houthis and government-backed fighters have been battling for months over control of the country. A U.S. aircraft carrier was sent Monday to the waters off Yemen to help prevent any shipment of arms by Iran.
There are fears that the conflict could turn into a proxy war pitting Shiite Iran against a league of Sunni Arab states primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman, which have provided military support to the government. In February, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a Sunni, was driven out of the capital by the Houthis, who are loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“What we need to do is bring all the parties together and find a political arrangement,” Obama said. “It is not solved by having another proxy war in Yemen. We’ve indicated to the Iranians that they need to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.”
Obama’s warnings come as U.S. and Iranian negotiators continue to hammer out the details of a potential agreement that could lift sanctions on Iran and rein in its nuclear program. The agreement’s framework was announced earlier this month, but some details remain to be worked out.
Obama, speaking to Matthews after participating in a round-table on international trade with small business owners and others, also sought to play down concerns over reports that Russia plans to sell Iran a sophisticated missile-defense system—another development that could complicate the nuclear talks.
“This is a sale that’s been pending for six years,” Obama said. “It’s of concern, we object to it, particularly because right now we’re still negotiating.”
But, Obama said, "we have to keep this in perspective. Our defense budget is somewhere just a little under $600 billion. Theirs is a little over $17 billion. Even if they’ve got some air defense systems, if we had to, we could penetrate them."
“Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the Iranians to make sure that they come to the table prepared to memorialize what has already been agreed to,” Obama said.
During the round-table, Obama was asked about criticism from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that the international trade deal that his administration is negotiating will only benefit the rich. In response, Obama called Warren "wrong" on the issue, and pointed to his credentials as a champion of those who are struggling, citing his health care law, and his support for raising the minimum wage.
"Everything I do has been focused on how do we make sure the middle class is getting a fair deal," Obama said. "Now, I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class. And when you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts they are wrong."
Asked about the migrant boat that capsized off Libya over the weekend, killing an estimated 800 people, Obama sought to focus attention on the larger problems of instability in the region. Many of the disaster’s victims, who came from across Africa and the Middle East, were fleeing war, poverty or persecution.
“The refugee problem from Libya results from tribal conflicts and religious differences in Libya that are creating chaos,” Obama said. “We have to maintain some perspective on this: The middle east and North Africa are going through changes we haven’t seen in a generation. I think the Islamic world is going through a process where they have to isolate and push out the kind of extremism that we’ve seen expressed by ISIL and that’s a generational project."
“It’s going to take some time, but I remind people that there actually is probably less war and less violence than there might have been 30 or 40 years ago.”