Washington (CNN)President Barack Obama said Tuesday evening that the U.S. is sending "very direct messages" warning Iran against attempts to supply weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Obama administration sends mixed message on Iranian ships
But the message to the American people has been a little more muddled. Throughout the day Tuesday, several administration spokesmen denied or downplayed any connection between U.S. warships deploying to Yemeni waters and an approaching convoy of Iranian cargo and naval ships.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf blasted "misreporting" in the news that U.S. ships in the region were tasked with monitoring or intercepting the Iranian ships nearing Yemen.
The U.S. is walking a fine line as it looks to quell the situation in Yemen. It has sought to reassure Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia that are engaged in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen -- allies that support the deposed Yemeni government that had been cooperating with the U.S. in fighting an al-Qaeda affiliate. But it is also looking to keep tensions with Iran to a minimum as American diplomats work to secure a final deal on Iran's nuclear program.
Harf dismissed the Iranian link in discussing the U.S. naval activities in the region.
"I just want to be very clear that the purpose is not to do anything in terms of those Iranian ships," Harf said during a press briefing Tuesday afternoon. "There are all these other ways we have of making clear to the Iranians what they should and shouldn't do. Absolutely. So let's not get all spun up about something that is not accurate."
Harf, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren focused instead on the talking point that maintaining open seas and the "freedom of navigation" were the main goals for the U.S. ships positioned near Yemen.
Obama also gave "freedom of navigation" as the reason for U.S. ships being sent to the region, but he tied it directly to the Iranian convoy.
"What we've said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that's a problem," Obama said in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "And we're not sending them obscure messages, we send them very direct messages about it. My hope is generally that we can settle down the situation in Yemen."
The president's comments were more in line with what officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told CNN and other outlets after the ships were deployed Monday: that the U.S. ships were moved closer to Yemen to monitor and dissuade the Iranian convoy.
Earnest, though, focused on the need for the U.S. Navy ships to keep the region's waters safe for commerce.
The movement of the -- of this particular aircraft carrier would augment the American military presence in the Gulf of Aden and would send a clear signal about our continued insistence about the free flow of commerce and the freedom of movement in the region," Earnest said.
Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, conceded that the Iranian convoy "is certainly one of the factors" in the U.S. ships' deployment, but he also knocked "over-cranked reporting" that the ships were readying to intercept that convoy.
"Let's be clear, they have moved to that area in response to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen," he said.
But on Capitol Hill, the top House Republican didn't mince words on the situation.
"Clearly we are assisting our allies who are involved in a struggle to keep the radical Houthis from taking control of all of Yemen," House Speaker John Boehner said. "There's a lot of speculation about what may or may not be on this Iranian convoy. But I think having our ships in place is the right thing to do. Hopefully their involvement will not be needed."