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France's seizure of Iranian weapons to Yemen is a win for Pentagon

French forces seized some 3,000 assault rifles, 23 anti-tank rockets and more than half a million rounds of ammunition bound for Yemen's Houthi rebels.
US Central Command supported maritime operations

The US military said Wednesday it had assisted a “partner naval force” in conducting a mid-January seizure of smuggled rifles and anti-tank missiles the Gulf of Oman.

The haul, which included more than 3,000 assault rifles, 578,000 rounds of ammunition and 23 guided anti-tank missiles, originated from Iran and was bound for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that French special forces were behind the interdiction.

A Western official familiar with the operation confirmed the French military’s involvement in the seizure to Al-Monitor, but offered no further details.

The French Embassy in Washington was not immediately available for comment. A spokesperson for US CENTCOM declined to provide details beyond the public statement.

Why it matters: The seizure marks a small win for the Pentagon’s efforts to convince European allies to take on a greater role in maritime security in the Middle East as the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet leads a surge in interdictions.

The arms haul comes in accordance with the UN’s 2015 arms embargo on Yemen, which was expanded last year, and as US and UN diplomats lead a push to revive a nationwide cease-fire for Yemen that expired in October.

France is a contributing member of the multinational Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) based in Bahrain and has continued to periodically deploy the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and other warships to the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region since supporting the US-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria starting in 2015.

Yet Paris, which maintains diplomatic relations with Tehran, has opted for a less public role in the US-led maritime security efforts in the region.

As tensions between the United States and Iran peaked during the Donald Trump administration, the French and other European governments balked joining the newly stood-up US-led International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) over concerns that Iran would perceive them as part of Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

France has nonetheless contributed to CMF Task Force 150 in the Gulf of Oman and northern Arabian Sea, which was stood up by the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Task Force 150 is currently led by the UK Royal Navy.

In late December, the crew of a French frigate supporting CMF Task Force 150 seized half a ton of heroin and more than 3.5 tons of cannabis stashed aboard a dhow in the Arabian Sea.

Know more: Washington’s European allies have sent naval staff to the Fifth Fleet’s experimental Task Force 59, which aims to surveil the region’s waterways using unmanned drones linked with artifical intelligence.

For more on the US-led naval efforts in the Gulf region, sign up for our weekly Security Briefing newsletter.

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