Yemen militiamen say the Iranians were from an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. If true, this could deepen tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, who are vying for influence in the Middle East.
— Local militiamen in the southern Yemeni city of Aden said they captured two Iranian military officers advising Houthi rebels, during fighting on Friday evening.Tehran has strongly denied providing any military support for Houthi fighters, whose advances have drawn Saudi-led air strikes in a campaign dubbed “Decisive Storm.”
If confirmed, the presence of two Iranian officers, whom the local militiamen said were from an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, would deepen tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, who are vying for influence in the Middle East.
So, now the United States is calling for Iran to stop supplying the Houthis with very lethal weaponry.
American defense official says Tehran is trying to supply surface-to-air missiles
WASHINGTON—An American destroyer in the Red Sea this month boarded a freighter the U.S. suspected of delivering Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, American military officials said.
The USS Sterett’s search of the Panamanian-flagged Saisaban on April 1 came up empty. But the officials said it marked the U.S. Navy’s first boarding operation in an expanding campaign to ensure Iran doesn’t supply game-changing weapons such as surface-to-air missiles that would threaten Saudi-led airstrikes on the Houthis.
The airstrikes began two weeks ago after Houthi rebels, who have taken over the capital and overrun much of the country, forced American-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country.
U.S. and Saudi officials say Tehran has been providing arms, weapons, training and funding for the Houthis for years—allegations Iran denies. A senior defense official said the U.S. knows Tehran is trying to supply the militant group with surface-to-air missiles.
Since the Red Sea search, the U.S. military has stepped up its surveillance in the region so it can keep a closer eye on what Iran and the Houthis are doing to turn the tide in their favor, the U.S. officials said.
More than a dozen nations have warships in the region, with Saudi and Egyptian sailors taking the lead in enforcing a naval blockade that has limited the Houthi fighters’ ability to secure more firepower from outside Yemen, U.S. military officials said. And weeks of Saudi-led airstrikes have damaged many runways in Yemen, making it difficult for Iran to fly weapons into the country.
“They don’t have an easy route in from the air. They don’t have an easy route in from the sea,” one senior U.S. military official said of the Iranians. “There’s lots of intelligence focused on what they’re doing—from loading to potential delivery.”
So far, the military officials said, the coordinated military operations appear to have deterred Iran from taking major risks to aid the Houthis.
American military officials said they are hopeful that Iran’s interest in securing a deal with the U.S. and its allies to lift sanctions in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program will temper Tehran’s attempts to help the Houthis.
“I don’t get the sense that the Iranian level of commitment at this point is of such a magnitude that they are going to take a big risk of being exposed any more than they already are,” one military official said. “If they can do it, and it’s not going to cost them a whole lot, I think they’ll do it. But the Houthis are not some ally that they are going to go to the mat for.”
Iran has long been suspected of aiding the Houthis militarily. Two years ago, Yemeni authorities seized a ship off the coast packed with weapons, including surface-to-air-missiles and Katyusha rockets, and arrested crew members of the Jihan I. Yemeni officials suspected the weapons were bound for Houthi militants as part of an effort by Tehran to back the fighters.
In recent days, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of sending members of its powerful Revolutionary Guard force to advise the Houthis.
The new efforts to choke off Iranian support for the Houthi rebels are seen as critical to weakening the fighters in Yemen as the Saudi-led airstrikes enter the third week. The bombing runs have inflicted significant damage on the Houthis, slowing their advance on the southern city of Aden, but have not delivered a crippling blow, American officials said.
So the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are working to starve the Houthi fighters of the weapons they need for a drawn-out fight. Because the runways in Yemen have been hit hard and there are no land routes between Iran and Yemen that do not go through Saudi Arabia, the country’s long coastline is seen as the best option Tehran might have to get arms to the Houthis.
One of the biggest concerns for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is the possibility that Iran might try to send surface-to-air missiles into Yemen so that Houthi fighters could challenge the bombing campaign.
“We are looking,” said one senior U.S. defense official. “We know they are trying to do it.”