By Tom O’Connor
The Pentagon has accused Iran of attempting to provide weapons and equipment to a friendly militia in Yemen after the U.S. Navy seized two arms shipments off the coast of the conflict-ravaged nation.
U.S. Central Command spokesperson Navy Captain William Urban hosted a press conference Wednesday in which he displayed slides detailing two separate weapons caches on dhows seized by two U.S. destroyers on November 25 of last year and earlier this month on February 9. The first unmarked vessel was intercepted by the Arleigh Burke-class USS Forrest Sherman and the second by the Ticonderoga-class USS Normandy.
Among the captured cargo were said to be components for “351” land-attack cruise missiles, “358” surface-to-air cruise missiles, “Dehlavieh” anti-guided missiles, Noor/C802 anti-ship cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles as well as thermal scopes and other military-related parts—all of which Urban said were manufactured in Iran. While he said he could not provide the exact chain of custody, he said the Pentagon assessed that they had been sent by the elite Revolutionary Guard to Yemen’s Zaidi Shiite Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement.
“If the weapons were manufactured in Iran, then they came from Iran,” Urban said when pressed on how the Pentagon could be sure Iran directly provided the weapons.
“Certainly, 150 anti-tank guided missiles do not just walk away,” he added. “They are illicitly smuggled for a purpose and that purpose is to spread lethal assistance to the Houthis, to Iranian proxies, there’s not a plausible explanation on how these weapons got on to a vessel in Yemen without the sanction of the Iranian government.”
Both the Houthis and Iran have denied any direct links between them, though they do share common foes in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. While not listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization, the Houthis are banned from receiving arms as part of a United Nations Security Council resolution adopted shortly after the conflict erupted in 2015.
Urban said that Iran had systematically violated this resolution as part of a “historical pattern” of which the most recent maritime seizures were a part. He based this theory on what he said were “four pillars” of circumstantial evidence.
These pillars included the third-party reports from experts, the presence of increasingly advanced Houthi weapons not seen in Yemen prior to the conflict, the U.N. Security Council arms embargo narrowing down the potential exporters and the specifications of the weapons themselves, which were not known to have been distributed by anyone but Iran. A fifth pillar, he said, involved information gathering that he could not discuss publicly.
The Pentagon, for its part, has provided a Saudi-led coalition with assistance in attempting to defeat the Houthis and their allies, who have held on to the capital city of Sanaa and other major towns cities and towns since the beginning of the conflict. Some of these weapons have ended up in the hands of Islamist groups tied to Al-Qaeda.
U.S. lawmakers voted to end military assistance to Riyadh in a historic vote last April over reports of mounting civilian casualties, but President Donald Trump vetoed the measure.
With peace talks repeatedly unraveling, both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have continued to stage deadly attacks on one another’s positions. The Houthis have also extended the battle into neighboring Saudi Arabia itself, targeting the kingdom with ballistic missiles.
Last September, the group claimed to have conducted the combined missile and drone attack that damaged two Saudi oil facilities. Washington and Riyadh instead blamed Tehran for conducting the unprecedented strike, which came just ahead of a United Nations General Assembly gathering that several countries had hoped would serve as a venue to de-escalate U.S.-Iran tensions.
Frictions between the two longtime foes have worsened considerably since President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to abandon a nuclear deal brokered three years earlier by the U.S. and Iran along with major world powers. The unilateral exit was followed by worsening sanctions against the Islamic Republic and its economy.
The dispute has resulted in additional U.S. military assets being deployed to the Middle East, where the Trump administration has blamed growing instances of unrest on Iran. A deadly spat between the U.S. and Iran-partnered militias in Iraq led Washington and Tehran to direct conflict last month when the U.S. assassinated Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iran retaliated with missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. personnel, injuring more than 100 of them.
Days later, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration also targeted another key Quds Force figure, Abdul Reza Shahla, in Yemen the same day as Soleimani and his entourage were killed near Baghdad’s international airport Iraq. The operation in Yemen reportedly failed.
For more than two decades, Soleimani played a frontline role in expanding Iran’s networks abroad. His successor, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani also has extensive experience and has vowed to boost efforts to force a U.S. withdrawal from the region.
The USS Normandy‘s capture earlier this month of suspected Iranian equipment destined for the Houthis was the first of its kind since Soleimani’s slaying. Urban said it showed Tehran was not planning to slow down its efforts to back its allies abroad in the wake of the leader’s death.
“With respect to the Soleimani issue, I think the Quds Force has demonstrated a consistent pattern of trying to provide weapons to the Houthis in Yemen to expand this conflict, to support the Houthis in their fight in Yemen despite the United Nations Security Council resolution embargoing those weapons shipments,” Urban said. “Apparently, it has not had an effect on their desire to provide those weapons to the Houthis.”