WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES: Iran has stepped up weapons transfers to the Houthis, the militia fighting the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, US, Western and Iranian officials tell Reuters, a development that threatens to prolong and intensify the 19-month-old war.
The increased pace of transfers in recent months, which officials said include missiles and small arms, could exacerbate a security headache for the United States, which last week struck Houthi targets with cruise missiles in retaliation for failed missile attacks on a US Navy destroyer.
Much of the recent smuggling activity has been through Oman, which neighbours Yemen, including via overland routes that take advantage of porous borders between the two countries, the officials said.
That raises a further quandary for Washington, which views the tiny Gulf state as a strategic interlocutor and ally in the conflict-ridden region. A senior US administration official said that Washington had informed Oman of its concerns, without specifying when.
“We have been concerned about the recent flow of weapons from Iran into Yemen and have conveyed those concerns to those who maintain relations with the Houthis, including the Omani government,” the official told Reuters.
Oman denies any weapons smuggling across its border, and its officials could not be reached for comment. Yemeni and senior regional officials say the Omanis are not actively involved with the transfers, but rather turning a blind eye and failing to aggressively crack down on the flow.
In an interview with Saudi newspaper Okaz last week, Omani Foreign Minister Yousef bin Alwi said, “There is no truth to this. No weapons have crossed our border and we are ready to clarify any suspicions if they arise.”
The Iran-allied Houthis gained a trove of weapons when whole divisions allied to former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh sided with them at the start of the war last year. But Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s exiled government say they also receive substantial amounts of weapons and ammunition from Iran. Tehran views the Houthis as the legitimate authority in Yemen, but denies it supplies them with weapons.
Some Western officials have been more skeptical of the view that the Houthis are receiving large-scale support from Iran.
The US and Western officials who spoke to Reuters about the recent trend in arms transfers said it was based on intelligence they had seen but did not elaborate on its nature. They said the frequency of transfers on known overland smuggling routes had increased notably, though the scale of the shipments was unclear.
Even US officials warning of Iran’s support for the Houthis acknowledge intelligence gaps in Yemen, where the US posture has been sharply reduced since the start of the conflict. The sources all declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“We are aware of a recent increased frequency of weapons shipments supplied by Iran, which are reaching the Houthis via the Omani border,” a Western diplomat familiar with the conflict told Reuters.
Three US officials confirmed that assertion.
One of those officials, who is familiar with Yemen, said that in the past few months there had been a noticeable increase in weapons-smuggling activity.
“What they’re bringing in via Oman are anti-ship missiles, explosives…, money and personnel,” the official said.
Another regional security source said the transfers included surface-to-surface short-range missiles and small arms.
A senior Iranian diplomat confirmed there had been a “sharp surge in Iran’s help to the Houthis in Yemen” since May, referring to weapons, training and money.
“The nuclear deal gave Iran an upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, but it needs to be preserved,” the diplomat said.
Washington’s Gulf allies have warned that US President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Tehran through the landmark nuclear deal signed last year will only embolden Iran in conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere.