US: Yemen Houthi rebels 'obtaining Iranian weapons via Oman'

US: Yemen Houthi rebels 'obtaining Iranian weapons via Oman'
Unnamed officials cited by Reuters claim that weapons are being funnelled to the group through Oman, an accusation that Muscat has previously denied.
3 min read
20 October, 2016
Houthi rebels have been blamed for recent missile attacks on US vessels [Getty]

On Thursday Reuters reported that Iran has increased its transfer of weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a development that could prolong the country’s now 19-month-long war.

The news wires agency cited both unnamed US and Iranian sources stating that since May, Tehran has stepped up its provisions of weapons, said to include missiles and small arms, to the Houthis with much of the smuggling passing through Oman, which neighbours Yemen.

In an interview with Saudi daily Okaz last week, Oman’s foreign minister denied that weapons had passed through the country stating Muscat was prepared to “clarify any suspicions if they arise.”

However Washington, which views Oman as a strategic ally in the region, is said to have contacted Muscat to express its concerns.

Oman denies involvement

The Iran-allied Houthis who are fighting against forces loyal to exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, who is backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, gained considerable arms last year when entire divisions of the Yemeni army sided with their cause.

However, both the Hadi government and its backers in Riyadh, hold that Iran has provided the Houthis with considerable weaponry and ammunition. An accusation that Tehran denies.

In a recent interview on state TV, Yemen’s army chief of staff, Mohammed al-Maqdishi criticised Oman saying that Muscat needed to be “a lot stricter” to prevent smuggling across its borders.

In September, Yemeni authorities loyal to President Hadi found weapons bound for Iran-backed Houthis on trucks with Omani licence plates en route to the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa from Hadramout province.

No evidence of any link to Omani authorities was found but the Hadi government remains suspicious that Muscat has overlooked support for the Houthi cause in Dhofar, an Omani province bordering Yemen, and has speculated that Iranian weapons may have been stored at the Salalah airport in Dhofar, and on a number of small islands off the coast of the province.

Oman has also offered humanitarian and medical support to treat those wounded in Yemen and treated them in hospitals in the country following a maritime blockade imposed by the Arab coalition.

US suspicions

Three US officials who spoke to Reuters said that the frequency of arms transfers along known smuggling routes through Oman had increased notably in recent months but said that the scale of the shipments remained unclear.

"What they're bringing in via Oman are anti-ship missiles, explosives..., money and personnel," said one US official, while another claimed the shipments had included surface-to-surface short-range missiles.

Last week the purported targeting of US naval vessels off the coast of Yemen by rockets allegedly fired from Houthi territory lead the US to take counter-measures and fire and destroy three Houthi radar locations.

Both the Houthis and their backers in Tehran have denied responsbility for the attacks. However, an unnamed Iranian diplomat quoted by Reuters said that there had been a “sharp surge” in Iranian military aid to the Houthis without elaborating further.

"The nuclear deal gave Iran an upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, but it needs to be preserved," the diplomat said.

A UN brokered 72-hour ceasefire began in Yemen on Wednesday just under two weeks after a Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a funeral in Sanaa attended by Houthi officials killed over 130 people causing widespread condemnation.

Over the course of Yemen’s 19 month war, 10,000 people have been killed and over three million displaced, while 60 percent of all civilian deaths have been attributed to coalition airstrikes.