Defence supports the specific EU mission in the Red Sea to protect merchant ships from Houthi attacks. But according to government sources, Spain will not be joining the operation.
After a week without the Spanish government clarifying its position on the operation, which is being promoted by the US, the defence ministry finally clarified its position in a statement Saturday afternoon.
In it, the ministry rejects the change in the geographical scope of Operation Atalanta. Spain favours the creation of an ad hoc mission with ‘its own entity’, involving EU member states that so wish. Government sources rule out Spain’s participation.
Phone call Sánchez and Biden
The decision comes after Joe Biden’s conversation with Pedro Sánchez on Friday night, in which they discussed the situation in the Red Sea. According to the White House statement, Biden “stressed the importance of ensuring that the conflict does not spill over into the region, including condemning the ongoing Houthi attacks on commercial vessels”. Moncloa’s press release did not mention the Houthis, indicating an underlying disagreement.
Last Thursday, Spain vetoed the extension of the EU’s Atalanta naval mission, which fights piracy in the Indian Ocean, to support the US in the Red Sea. Earlier this week, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the formation of a naval coalition to ensure freedom of navigation in these waters. In doing so, he indicated that Spain would be part of it. He had not consulted him beforehand, an oversight that caused irritation in Moncloa.
These issues were discussed
According to US diplomatic sources, the telephone conversation on Friday focused on the conflict between Israel and Gaza. The US president briefed Sánchez on the need to make progress on the three main lines of American work. These are the humanitarian pauses in Gaza, the release of Hamas hostages and the search for a solution for the future of the conflict.
But the risks of Houthi attacks on maritime trade routes were also discussed. Since the outbreak of war in the Middle East, Sánchez has taken a position that differs from that of most European countries. He stressed the need to achieve a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and resume negotiations as soon as possible that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.
Although he is the European head of government who has gone furthest in his statements, some countries have also expressed themselves in similar terms. For example, Ireland, Belgium and Malta. Norway also joins Sánchez’s views.
Spain not in favour of joining US mission
Spain is not in favour of getting involved in the US mission in the Red Sea. ‘It is clear that the nature and objectives of the Atalanta mission have nothing to do with the objectives to be achieved in the Red Sea,’ the ministry stresses.
With this argument, the government is trying to explain why Spain first supported cooperation with the US in the Red Sea at the EU’s Political and Security Committee through a change in Atalanta’s mandate and then withdrew the next day.
On Sánchez’s orders, the Spanish representative then blocked the modification of the objectives of the naval mission in the Indian Ocean. This veto left Brussels with the only option of setting up an ad hoc naval mission for the Red Sea in which any country would be free to get involved.
Launching a specific operation, in support of the Pentagon’s initiative during this holiday season, is difficult, despite the urgency. No matter how much haste the US is in, it will take weeks for the EU to launch the operation.
Strait of Gibraltar threat
While the Houthis are endangering shipping in the Red Sea with their attacks, Iranian authorities are threatening direct action in the Strait of Gibraltar. ‘The US and its allies must wait for the closure of the Mediterranean Sea and Gibraltar after Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea if the Zionist Israeli regime continues its crimes in Gaza (…),’ General Mohammad-Reza Naghdi warned Saturday night. He is the number two in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Iran does not have the means to blockade the Strait of Gibraltar. If it tried to do so with its own forces, it would provoke a NATO response.