LONDON: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps have started using a new route across the Gulf to funnel covert arms shipments to their Houthi allies in Yemen’s civil war, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

In March, regional and Western sources told Reuters that Iran was shipping weapons and military advisers to the Houthis either directly to Yemen or via Somalia. This route however risked contact with international naval vessels on patrol in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

For the last six months the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has begun using waters further up the Gulf between Kuwait and Iran as it looks for new ways to beat an embargo on arms shipments to fellow Shias in the Houthi movement, Western and Iranian sources say.

Using this new route, Iranian ships transfer equipment to smaller vessels at the top of the Gulf, where they face less scrutiny. The transhipments take place in Kuwaiti waters and in nearby international shipping lanes, the sources said.

“Parts of missiles, launchers and drugs are smuggled into Yemen via Kuwaiti waters,” said a senior Iranian official. “The route sometimes is used for transferring cash as well.” The official added that “what is especially smuggled recently, or to be precise in the past six months, are parts of missiles that cannot be produced in Yemen”.

Cash and drugs can be used to fund Houthi activities, the official said.

Yemen is more than two years into a civil war pitting the Houthis against the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition.

In backing the Houthis against a coalition led by its Sunni enemy Saudi Arabia, Iran is stepping up support for a Shia ally in a war whose outcome could sway the balance of power in the Middle East.

Military equipment

Efforts to intercept military equipment by the coalition have had limited success, with no reported maritime seizures of weapons or ammunition during 2017 so far and only a few seizures on the main land route from the east of Yemen.

Independent UN investigators, who monitor Yemen sanctions, told the Security Council in their latest confidential report, which Reuters has seen, that they continue to investigate potential arms trafficking routes.

They said the United Arab Emirates — which is part of the coalition — had reported 11 attacks since September 2016 against its ground forces by Houthis using drones, or UAVs, armed with explosives.

“Although Houthi-aligned media announced that the Sanaa-based Ministry of Defence could manufacture the UAV, in reality they are assembled from components supplied by an outside source and shipped into Yemen,” the report said.

The report added that the Houthis “will eventually deplete their limited stock of missiles”. This would force the Houthis to end a campaign of missile attacks against Saudi territory unless they are resupplied from external sources.

An earlier UN report in January said the Houthis needed to replenish stocks of anti-tank guided weapons.

The arms smuggling operation may not turn the tide of the conflict, but it will allow the Houthis receive stable supplies of equipment that is otherwise hard to obtain.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2017

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