WASHINGTON – Iran has stepped up weapons transfers to the Houthis, the militia fighting the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, U.S., Western and Iranian officials said, a development that threatens to prolong and intensify the 19-month-old war.
The increased pace of transfers in recent months, which officials said include missiles and small arms, could exacerbate a security headache for the United States, which last week struck Houthi targets with cruise missiles in retaliation for failed missile attacks on a U.S. Navy destroyer.
Much of the recent smuggling activity has been through Oman, which neighbors Yemen, including via overland routes that take advantage of porous borders between the two countries, the officials said.
That creates a further quandary for Washington, which views the tiny Persian Gulf state as a strategic interlocutor and ally in the conflict-ridden region. A senior U.S. administration official said that Washington had informed Oman of its concerns, without specifying when.
“We have been concerned about the recent flow of weapons from Iran into Yemen and have conveyed those concerns to those who maintain relations with the Houthis, including the Omani government,” the official said.
Oman denies any weapons smuggling across its border. Yemeni and senior regional officials say the Omanis are not actively involved with the transfers but rather turning a blind eye and failing to aggressively crack down on the flow.
The Iran-allied Houthis gained a trove of weapons when whole divisions allied to former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh sided with them at the start of the war last year. But Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s exiled government say they also receive substantial amounts of weapons and ammunition from Iran. Tehran views the Houthis as the legitimate authority in Yemen, but denies it supplies them with weapons.
Some Western officials have been more skeptical of the view that the Houthis are receiving large-scale support from Iran.
The U.S. and Western officials who spoke about the recent trend in arms transfers said it was based on intelligence they had seen but did not elaborate on its nature. They said the frequency of transfers on known overland smuggling routes had increased notably, although the scale of the shipments was unclear.
Even U.S. officials warning of Iran’s support for the Houthis acknowledge intelligence gaps in Yemen, where the U.S. posture has been sharply reduced since the start of the conflict. The sources all declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
One U.S. official said that in the past few months there had been a noticeable increase in weapons-smuggling activity.
“What they’re bringing in via Oman are anti-ship missiles, explosives … money and personnel,” the official said.
Another regional security source said the transfers included surface-to-surface short-range missiles and small arms.
A senior Iranian diplomat confirmed there had been a “sharp surge in Iran’s help to the Houthis in Yemen” since May, referring to weapons, training and money.
“The nuclear deal gave Iran an upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, but it needs to be preserved,” the diplomat said.
Washington’s Persian Gulf allies have warned that U.S. President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Tehran through the landmark nuclear deal signed last year will only embolden Iran in conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere.
The increase in transfers comes as the civil war drags on and threatens to pull the United States deeper into a conflict that has killed 10,000 people and which pits two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, against each other. A U.N.-brokered 72-hour cease-fire went into effect on Wednesday.
Since the beginning of the war, the Houthis have used short-range Scud missiles, and the United Nations says they also have used surface-to-air missiles, improvised to operate as surface-to-surface rockets against Saudi Arabia.
But a suspected Houthi missile attack against a United Arab Emirates vessel in a strategic Red Sea shipping lane this month, as well as the attempted strikes against the U.S. warship, raise worries about the rebels’ capability to launch bolder attacks.
The Houthis have denied attacking the USS Mason.
Two officials said the United States was looking into whether components of the missiles, including the warhead, might have benefited from Iranian parts or come from Iran but acknowledged the assessment was so far inconclusive.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the U.S. military’s Central Command, said he suspected an Iranian role in arming the Houthis and noted Iran was one of the possible suppliers of the kinds of shore-based missile technology seen in Yemen.
“I do think Iran is playing a role in some of this. They do have a relationship with the Houthis,” he told a forum in Washington.
A senior Western diplomat said that Iran’s role in helping the Houthis had increased substantially since March 2015, when the Saudis intervened to restore President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to office.
Iran on Thursday denied playing any role in the failed missile attack on the USS Mason. “The ambiguous and contradictory remarks by American officials in past days are wrong and inappropriate, showing their bewilderment in the Yemen conflict,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told state-run television.
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