WASHINGTON – The United States is seeking the forfeiture of more than a million rounds of ammunition intercepted by the US Navy en route to militants in Yemen as part of a larger investigation into Iran’s arms smuggling network, the Justice Department said Friday.
“The United States disrupted a major operation by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to smuggle weapons of war into the hands of a militant group in Yemen,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
US Central Command seized the ammunition in early December from an unflagged fishing vessel in the Arabian Sea, court documents said.
“The Department of Justice is now seeking the forfeiture of those weapons, including more than a million rounds of ammunition and thousands of proximity fuses for rocket-propelled grenades,” Garland said.
The United States has long accused Iran of supplying arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a civil war has displaced hundreds of thousands and pushed the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.
In recent months, US and allied naval forces have intercepted several arms shipments on sea routes they say are used to smuggle weapons from Iran to Yemen. In a first-of-its-kind seizure, the US Navy in November intercepted a vessel in the Gulf of Oman that had enough aluminum perchlorate on board to fuel more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles.
Iran denies providing arms and training to the militant group, which seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and ousted the internationally recognized government. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in 2015 in a devastating proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh.
A panel of United Nations experts reported in February that most of the weapons and ammunition provided to the Houthis reached Yemen via traditional sailing vessels and smaller boats in the Arabian Sea.
Fertilizers and other chemicals that could be used to manufacture explosives were smuggled through Djibouti to Houthi-controlled ports in the Red Sea, the report said. He noted that anti-tank guided missiles and other interceptor weapons have “technical characteristics and markings” consistent with those manufactured in Iran.
The China-brokered agreement this month between Iran and Saudi Arabia to normalize diplomatic relations could ease the conflict in Yemen, experts and US officials say. The Biden administration expects Tehran to stop arms smuggling to the Houthis as part of its deal with Riyadh, a senior US government official told Al-Monitor.
“I think there is some pressure on the Houthis because of the deal from Saudi Arabia and Iran,” said the senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They know that if it goes ahead it means they’re going to get less from the Iranians in terms of weapons.”
The Houthis and Saudi Arabia last year revived direct talks aimed at restoring a nationwide Yemeni ceasefire that collapsed in October. In what was seen as a confidence-building measure, the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed this month to free 887 detainees.