(Bloomberg) -- The US has been consulting with Gulf allies about potential military action against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels in response to their increasingly brazen attacks on ships in the Red Sea, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions.

The talks are at a preliminary stage and both the US and partners still favor diplomacy over direct confrontation, said the people, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. That said, the fact the discussions are taking place at all underscores how seriously the US takes the threat, the people added.

Deputy US National Security Adviser Jon Finer said Thursday the Biden administration has “not ruled out the possibility of taking military action” against the Houthis but the focus for now is on assembling a maritime coalition to secure the Red Sea — a conduit for 12% of world trade and the bulk of Middle East energy supplies to Europe.

The Houthis would not have been able to carry out the attacks without “significant” military and intelligence support from Iran, he said. 

Read More: Why Yemen’s Houthi Rebels Are Taking Aim at Israel: QuickTake

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin relayed a similar message to Saudi Arabia counterpart Prince Khalid Bin Salman, according to the Pentagon. And National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US is in talks to assemble a naval task force “with as much buy-in from as many countries as possible” that could escort ships in the Red Sea as a defense.

Israeli Targets

The diplomatic moves follow a series of drone and missile attacks by Houthi rebels against commercial ships they say have ties with Israel, making them “legitimate targets.” The assaults began not long after Israel initiated its war against Hamas in early October, and have overlapped with broader opposition in the Arab world to the campaign on the Gaza Strip and its escalating death count. 

More than 17,000 Palestinians have been killed to date, according to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry. Hamas, which triggered the conflict with its deadly incursion into Israel on Oct. 7, is designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union and is also backed by Iran.  

In emailed comments to Bloomberg News, US Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said he was back in the Middle East “to continue intensive US diplomacy and regional coordination to safeguard maritime security in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

He said that was taking place amid Iran-enabled Houthi attacks that threaten “almost two years of joint progress to end the war in Yemen.”

Read More: Israel’s Mission to Wipe Out Hamas Tunnels Will Take Months  

Complicating any US-led collective effort to stop the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea is that key allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates doubt the Biden administration’s resolve to confront the group, especially during a presidential election year and given it’s also trying to stop the Israel-Hamas war from spiraling into a regional one.

Saudi Arabia has also approached Iran with an offer to boost cooperation and invest in its sanctions-stricken economy if it can prevent regional proxies from sparking a wider conflict.

Read More: Saudi Arabia Offers Iran Investment to Blunt Gaza War 

Saudi Arabia is looking to sign a permanent cease-fire with the Houthis to end its eight-year war with the group — an effort supported by the US. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE is “interested in reopening the Yemen war,” said Ayham Kamel, director of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group. 

Saudi officials couldn’t be reached on Friday, the start of the weekend in Saudi Arabia, and didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment through the kingdom’s embassy in London. 

US Destroyer

Last week, the Houthis unleashed an hours-long barrage of missiles and drones against three commercial ships and possibly the USS Carney destroyer, which was dispatched to the Red Sea in mid-October to defend the waterway. 

An Israeli-linked cargo vessel seized last month by the Houthis is believed to be anchored at Al-Hudaydah, west of Sanaa. Reuters and the EPA news agencies released photos showing anti-American and antisemitic slogans plastered on the vessel’s cabin and Yemeni men in traditional attire pumping their fists in the air and taking selfies on the deck.  

The attacks have increased insurance premiums for ships in the region while some companies, particularly those with Israeli ties, have re-routed their ships despite additional time and costs, said Noam Raydan, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“One can’t dismiss the risk of an escalation or miscalculation that creates deeper commercial shockwaves,” she said.

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