An analysis of weapons seized from dhows off the coast of Yemen earlier this year provides the most detailed evidence yet of an arms route between Iran and Houthi rebels.
The British-based Conflict Armament Research (Car) found that weapons seized from Iranian-made dhows by Australian and French warships in the Arabian Sea matched similar weapons captured from Houthis in Yemen.
An American warship, the USS Sirocco, intercepted a third dhow with weapons that US officials said were from Iran and bound for Yemen, but US Central Command did not make details available to Car for their report.
All three interceptions were made in the weeks after the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal in January. Car’s report comes after US officials said in October that American ships had interdicted five Iranian arms shipments bound for Yemen.
Iran has denied US and Gulf accusations that it sends weapons to the Houthi rebels, and officials in Tehran have said they only provide diplomatic support.
The UAE ambassador to the UN, Lana Nusseibeh, said Car’s findings “would be a flagrant violation of UN security council resolutions”.
“The UAE calls on the security council to take all measures necessary to demand that Iran comply with its obligations,” she added. “These shipments are further evidence of Iran’s expansionist and destabilising behaviour in Yemen, fuelling the conflict and endangering Yemeni civilians and Yemen’s neighbours.”
The Iran-Houthi arms pipeline
click to expand graphic
Analysis of the caches of anti-tank missiles, rocket launchers and other light weapons and small arms from the dhows that were bound for ports in Somalia, suggests they were “probably supplied with the complicity of Iranian security forces”, Car said.
Some of the weapons found were made in Iran, while others were made in Russia, North Korea, China, Bulgaria and Romania.
The researchers were able to document Iranian-made and Russian-made anti-tank missiles in a cache that UAE forces said was captured from Houthi fighters in Taiz province in November 2015, and in a captured shipment of weapons that UAE military officials said had come overland through Oman into Marib governate. The lot number of a Russian Kornet missile matched those of the same type found on the dhow intercepted by the French FS Provence ship in March 2016, and the serial numbers of both were “within the same sequence”, the report stated.
The presence of similar weapons in Yemen with the same lot numbers and serial sequences “supports the assertion that material on board the dhows was ultimately destined for Yemen, and likewise, that the material recovered in Yemen probably originated in Iran”, said the report.
Stowed on the same dhow were also 2,000 new condition AKM-pattern assault rifles with sequential serial numbers, “which suggests that the rifles derived from a national stockpile, rather than disparate non-state sources”.
Light machine guns found on both dhows had the same serial number sequences, “which suggests that the materiel derived from the same original consignment”, the report added.
The Australian HMAS Darwin seized more than 2,000 weapons, including assault rifles and 100 Iranian-made rocket launchers. The French seizure included more than 2,000 assault rifles, 64 new Hoshdar-M Iranian-made sniper rifles and nine Russian-made anti-tank missiles.
The two ships, along with the USS Sirocco, are part of an international naval coalition that patrols the strategically important waters between Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
Photos of the intercepted dhows provided to Car – which is primarily funded by the European Union and tracks illicit weapons flows for the UN and government clients – showed they were manufactured by Al Mansoor, a shipbuilder in Iran located next to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps base, the report said.
While there are no direct ties between the shipbuilder and the IRGC, Jonah Leff, Car’s director of operations, said: “We did find a few former employees of Al Mansoor and they gave some information, but then they sort of froze up and disappeared.”
The “weapon pipeline” outlined by the report flows from Iran to a number of small transshipment ports in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of the Somali coast, on the tip of the Horn of Africa. The coastal region is largely ungoverned by Somali authorities, and a former Puntland ports minister told Reuters that last year 160 Iranian boats were reported illegally entering Somali waters.
Mr Leff said sources at the Somali ports reported that the arms arrive on large dhows from Iran that either come into dock or anchor off the coast where smaller vessels meet them and take parts of the illicit cargo to other Somali ports. The weapons then enter the region’s arms trade, or go on to Yemen, camouflaged in the heavy maritime traffic criss-crossing the area.
The Ash Shihr port in Yemen, east of Mukalla, was a destination frequently mentioned by sources in Somalia to Car’s investigators.
Traditionally, the abundance of weapons in Yemen has meant that the arms smuggling routes would flow in the opposite direction, with small shipments coming out of Yemen to African markets. “This route we’ve identified coming from Iran, I don’t know if it’s new, but at least it is new on the radar of people who are looking into these things,” Mr Leff said.
The size and nature of the seized weapons also suggests they were not meant for the Somali market. “These clearly were pretty significant or large hauls of weapons, bigger than what we ordinarily see pulling into docks in Somalia,” he said, adding that “from our own work documenting weapons in the illicit markets in Somalia we haven’t seen anything that matches the typology of weapons that were present in these three interdictions”.
Unusually, none of the two seizures of weapons Car was able to study included ammunition for the firearms, and none of them carried empty magazines, which Mr Leff said was “kind of a mystery”.