WASHINGTON — The United States is seeking the forfeiture of more than one million rounds of ammunition intercepted by the US Navy en route to militants in Yemen as part of a larger investigation into an Iranian weapons-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," US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
US Central Command in early December seized the ammunition from a flagless fishing vessel in the Arabian Sea, court documents said.
"The Justice Department is now seeking the forfeiture of those weapons, including over one million rounds of ammunition and thousands of proximity fuses for rocket-propelled grenades," Garland said.
The United States has long accused Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a civil war has displaced hundreds of thousands and pushed what was already the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.
In recent months, the US and allied naval forces have intercepted a number of arms shipments along maritime routes they say are used for smuggling 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 with enough aluminum perchlorate onboard to fuel more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles.
Iran denies providing arms and training to the militant group, which seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and expelled the internationally recognized government. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in 2015 in what became a grueling proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh.
A United Nations panel of experts reported in February that the majority of weapons and ammunition provided to the Houthis reached Yemen via traditional sailing vessels and smaller boats in the Arabian Sea.
Fertilizer 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. It noted that anti-tank guided missiles and other seized 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 is hoping that Tehran will halt its arms smuggling to the Houthis as part of its deal with Riyadh, a senior US government official told Al-Monitor.
“The Houthis, quite honestly, I think are feeling some pressure because of the Saudi-Iranian deal,” the senior US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They know that if that goes forward, 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 truce 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.