An American-led maritime coalition recently intercepted a fishing boat carrying weapons off the coast of Oman, according to news reports on Monday. U.S. officials suspect the boat was destined for Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the U.S. Navy said it believes the boat set off from Iran with an Iranian crew. The announcement provides a timely reminder that, since signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal last summer, Iran has continued to ship weapons to its violent proxies in the Arabian Peninsula.
The suspicious dhow was intercepted on February 27 by an Australian frigate under a multinational naval task force known as Combined Maritime Forces, which is led by the U.S. and based out of Bahrain. The ship was carrying 1,989 AK-47 assault rifles, 100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 49 machine guns, and 20 mortar tubes – a haul valued at over $2 million. Australia indicated that the dhow was “headed toward the Somalia coast,” and CNN reported the weapons may have been “headed to Yemen by way of Somalia.”
The February intercept was similar to an operation conducted in September 2015, when the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen announced it had thwarted an attempt to smuggle weapons to Houthi militias. U.S. officials indicated that ship was registered to an Iranian national and that its cargo – which included Iranian and Russian-made anti-tank missiles – originated in Iran. A vessel from an unnamed Gulf Cooperation Council country which conducted that interception was operating under the Combined Maritime Forces coalition, with the assistance of an American destroyer. Again, that seized dhow’s crew claimed they were headed to Somalia when intercepted about 150 miles southeast of the Omani city of Salalah. Notably, the Omanis just inked a deal to increase Iranian shipping to Salalah.
Every year since 2012, news outlets have reported on large maritime weapons shipments to Yemen’s Houthis from Iran. U.S. and Saudi officials also indicated last year that Tehran was sending military materiel on flights to Sanaa before the imposition of the Saudi-led military blockade. Since then, the U.S. Treasury has confirmed that Iran continued to supply weapons to extremist groups in Yemen.
Yemen is not the only destination for Iranian weapons in the Arabian Peninsula. In August 2015, for example, Kuwait’s Interior Ministry discovered a weapons cache that included over 40,000 pounds of ammunition, 300 pounds of explosives, and 200 hand grenades. A Kuwaiti court ruled last year that the leader of the smuggling cell had arranged with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to bring arms and explosives into Kuwait. He was convicted of smuggling and spying for Hezbollah and Iran.
Similarly, the State Department confirmed in 2014 that the Bahraini Coast Guard had interdicted a speedboat trying to smuggle weapons and Iranian explosives, and that during questioning, the suspects had admitted to undergoing paramilitary training in Iran. Since then, Bahraini authorities have announced the capture of other explosives they said bore clear similarities to those used by the IRGC. The Bahrainis also claim to have thwarted a July 2015 effort to smuggle enough explosives by boat from Iran to “obliterate” the capital district of Manama.
Not even Saudi Arabia is immune: in October 2015, Riyadh’s foreign minister accused the Islamic Republic of trying to smuggle explosives into the kingdom. The Saudis reportedly intercepted a smuggled shipment of armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators several months earlier from Bahrain by an Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group.
When President Obama hosted top officials from the six Arab Gulf monarchies at Camp David last year, he offered them a range of defense pledges to allay their fears about intensified Iranian aggression in the wake of the nuclear deal, including training and assistance to combat weapons smuggling. Given Iran’s continued weapons smuggling into the Arabian Peninsula, it seems that even more is needed.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg