Iran continues to inflame the civil war in Yemen by smuggling illicit weapons and technology to Houthi rebels, the top American admiral in the Middle East has said. In an interview with the New York Times, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan pointed out that Tehran is also enabling Yemeni rebels to fire more advanced missiles into neighboring Saudi Arabia and target allied ships in the Red Sea. “These types of weapons did not exist in Yemen before the conflict,” Donegan said. “It’s not rocket science to conclude that the Houthis are getting not only these systems but likely training and advice and assistance in how to use them,” he added. Between September 2015 through March 2016, allied warships interdicted four Iranian vessels containing more than 80 antitank guided missiles and 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles, according to the United States Navy.
Comment: Iran’s support for Yemeni rebels has been a constant issue of concern for the United States and the Saudi-led alliance fighting in Yemen. A report by Reuters in March quoted several regional and Western sources as saying that “in recent months Iran has taken a greater role in the two-year-old conflict by stepping up arms supplies and other support.” The report also quoted an unnamed Iranian official as revealing that Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’s elite Qods Force, met top I.R.G.C. officials in Tehran in February to explore ways of empowering the Houthis.
Another report in March claimed that Iran had transferred aerial drone technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen. According to Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a U.K.-based organization that tracks and analyzes weapons shipments around the world, Houthis use the explosive-laden drones to disable Saudi-led coalition’s missile defenses. By disrupting the coalition's radar system with the drones, the rebels are able to fire a barrage of missiles at coalition targets, it added. "These findings strengthen a body of evidence compiled by CAR, which links weapons captured from Houthi and Saleh-aligned forces to transfers from Iranian national stockpiles," the authors of the report explained.
Similarly in February, the United Arab Emirates summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires to protest “Iran’s illegal arming” of Shiite Yemeni rebels, including providing drones to target the Yemeni and Saudi-led coalition forces. The move came just days after the U.A.E. Air Force destroyed an "Iranian military drone" intended to target Yemeni government troops near the Red Sea. Major General Ahmed Saif Al Yafei, the deputy chief of general staff of Yemeni forces, said at the time the drone had been smuggled in by the rebels from Iran, after government troops trapped them on the coast.
Moreover, a Saudi coalition aircraft earlier this year killed a senior I.R.G.C. officer who reportedly supervised the design and implementation of ballistic missile systems for Houthi missile brigades in Yemen. And earlier this month, Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, said Iran was prolonging the Yemeni conflict by sending weapons to Houthi rebels.
While the Iranian government denies sending arms to the Houthis, the U.S. military and its allies have confiscated several Iranian arms shipments destined for Yemen. In January, the Australian government released photographs that showed light anti-armor weapons seized near the Yemeni coast were manufactured in Iran. And last November, another report published CAR indicated an arms “pipeline” originating from Iran extended to Yemen and Somalia. Last year, Iran’s former ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi admitted that Tehran “assisted the region’s oppressed people, including in Yemen against the Saudi invaders.” In an interview with a conservative Iranian newspaper, he warned that Iran’s national security would be compromised if Riyadh succeeded in Yemen.
And a senior Iranian cleric, who reportedly advises Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in a rare video admitted that Iran provided weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. “Iran’s catering of missiles to the Houthis was carried out in stages by the Revolutionary Guards and the support and assistance of the Iranian navy,” Mehdi Tayeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base – an organization that is said to be tasked with fighting soft wars against Iran – was quoted as saying. The cleric also criticized President Hassan Rouhani for stopping the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) from sending weapons to the Houthis two years ago in order not to scuttle nuclear negotiations with Washington. He also claimed that “the nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the six major countries have come in the way of preventing three times the provision of Iranian surface-to-surface missiles to the Houthis.” He continued: “Khamenei was the one who ordered Iranian naval to be stationed at Bab al-Mandeb to facilitate weapons supplies without anyone knowing.”