From illicit weapons transfers to matériel development: Iran’s role in Yemen’s weapon game

By Elisa Cherry*

During conflict, in all areas of the world, the transfer of illicit goods, particularly small arms and weapons is present. Throughout the course of one of the deadliest civil wars[1], the transfer of illicit matériel from Iran into Yemen has remained one of the greatest hinderances to finding peace. Small arms[2] include heavy machine guns; grenade launchers; portable anti-aircraft guns and tanks; anti-tank missile and rocket systems; mortars and more have been repeatedly tracked from Iran to Yemen, as the Islamic Republic backs the Houthi rebels in their war efforts. Further, as the war wages on and the Houthis continue to carry out violent attacks, there are now reports of the Houthis building their own weapons within Yemen, yet they still hold ties to Iran through their assistance in weaponry development.[3]

One of the most persistent weapons flows in the world exists within the Arabian Peninsula, as the Islamic Republic of Iran has transferred weapons to Gulf and Levantine countries, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria and into Yemen where they can further make their way throughout the Horn of Africa, into Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.[4] An extensive illicit trade network exists between Yemen and Somalia, which has been a key point of entry for weapons coming from Iran.[5] The threat from illicit weapons transfers from Iran can be seen on a political, economic and social scale, as the war time economy in countries such as Yemen are suffering significantly, yet funding for weapons continues and Iran continues to exert influence over the Houthis.

There is a meaningful link between the supply of Iranian weapons to the conflict in Yemen. Weapons are entering into Yemen mainly through maritime routes, but there have also been  reported instances of weapons crossing the border from Oman.[6] Throughout the ongoing conflict ships in the Arabian Peninsula have intercepted small shipping vessels and have found a large-cache of Iranian-made weapons, which were assumed to be intended for the Houthis on multiple occasions.[7] The most recent of these incidents of naval interception was in February 2020, but similar interferences have been reported all the way back to 2015.[8] Weapons that were seized include the anti-tank missiles modelled after the Russian Kornet, Iranian pistols and other surface to air missiles.[9]

 The greater and longer that militia groups, namely the Houthis but also al-Qaeda affiliates, operating in the region continue to engage with and fund illicit weapons transfers, the longer the conflict will ensue. In 2019, the Houthis diverted an estimate $1.8 billion from their revenue streams in order to fund the war efforts.[10]  

The transfer of weapons from Iran into Yemen specifically should be of particular concern as the ongoing conflict is exacerbated by the Iranian support to the Houthi rebels as they wage their proxy war against the internationally backed Yemeni government.

Other instances have identified Iranian made matériel, including an extensive field work study that shows a similar link to Iranian weapons, which were confiscated in Bahrain, though the weapons were discovered to have a Chinese origin.[11] It was assumed that the weapons were intended to be delivered to the Houthis. Though there is also major concern for Iranian support to made arms and light weapons domestically, within Yemen. Reports have noted a number of weapons (targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that were not available on the international market in 2019, which condones the notion that the Houthis are acquiring commercially available parts (likely through illicit trade) to develop their own weapons.[12]

The ability to replicate weapons for illicit goods complicates the ability to track and trace weapons to their origin, as weapon experts and the international community must individually examine the weapons and cross-check them with either previously identified weapons, or known manufactured weapons from countries transferring illicit weapons, such as Iran.[13] Iran has played a key role in the conflict in Yemen through indirect means of transferring weapons to the Houthi rebels. These weapon transfers demonstrated integrated criminal networks that are operating between Iran, Yemen and then Africa, exacerbating the complexities of war and the extensive illicit networks that exist beyond the transfer of small arms and weapons.[14] Significantly, while the majority of illicit weapons transfers are carried out through private companies, they can also be transferred through the support of government entities, such is the case with Iranian weapons into Yemen.[15]

Regulation efforts have been made at an international level, but when governments are involved in the trafficking of small arms and light weapons there is difficulty in creating compliance to these measures considering the differences between private and state entities’ involvement in illicit trafficking.[16] However, the findings from internationally intercepted maritime forces in February 2020 and November 2019 (noted above) demonstrate a lack of compliance under international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions.[17] Further, the international regulation against arms transfers into Yemen, from Iran violates the United Nations arms embargo against Iran.[18]

Conclusion:

The transfer of illicit small arms and light weapons into Yemen, from Iran is exacerbating the conflict and contributing to destabilisation in the country. Iran is in violation of international law by engaging in these activities. While the transfer of weapons into Yemen is significant, the ability of the Houthis to build their own weaponry, with commercial parts should also be of concern. The vast networks of weapons transfers, in through and around Yemen contribute greatly to the ongoing civil war and cause great concern for the international community in attempting to thwart the threat of Iran.

Bio*

Elisa is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. She completed her first Masters in International Conflict and Security at the University of Kent – Brussels School of International Studies, and is pursuing a second Masters in Statistics and Data Science from KU Leuven, in Belgium. She specialises in Middle East conflict analysis, terrorism and resource based violence and is currently working for a think tank in Brussels. Elisa is also the Director of Security and Defence with the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, Brussels.

References:

Al-Batati. “Revealed: How Iran Smuggles Weapons to the Houthis.” Arab News, October 1, 2020. https://arab.news/zeq7u.

Bastien Olvera, Gustavo Mauricio. “The Security Council and the Illegal Transfer of Small Arms and Light Weapons to Non-State Actors.” Mexican Law Review 6, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 225–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1870-0578(16)30013-0.

Bunker, Robert, and Alma Keshavarz. “‘Made in Yemen’: Houthi Exhibition Showcase New Drones, Missile and Naval Mines.” Small Wars Journal (blog), April 8, 2021. https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/made-yemen-houthi-exhibition-showcase-new-drones-missiles-and-naval-mines.

Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. “OP-ED: Evidence Suggests Iranian Weapons Being Trafficked by Criminal Networks into the Horn of Africa.” Daily Maverick, August 16, 2020. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-08-17-evidence-suggests-iranian-weapons-being-trafficked-by-criminal-networks-into-the-horn-of-africa/.

Larané, André. “21st Century – The Least Violent World in History . . . – Herodote.Net.” herodote.net, 2018. https://www.herodote.net/Un_monde_moins_violent_que_jamais-article-1193.php?lang=en.

Michetti, Tim. “A Guide to Illicit Iranian Weapon Transfers,” December 2020, 77.

Neal, Will. “Conflict in Yemen Sees Iranian Arms Trafficked to Somalia,” August 18, 2020. https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/12972-conflict-in-yemen-sees-iranian-arms-trafficked-to-somalia.

Nichols, Michelle. “Exclusive: U.N. Report Accuses Yemen Government of Money-Laundering, Houthis of Taking State Revenue.” Reuters, January 26, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/yemen-security-un-exclusive-int-idUSKBN29V2BY.

Schroeder, Matt. “The Illicit Arms Trade.” Federation of American Scientists, 2012. https://fas.org/asmp/campaigns/smallarms/IssueBrief3ArmsTrafficking.html.

SIPRI. “UN Arms Embargo on Iran.” SIPRI, April 7, 2021. https://www.sipri.org/databases/embargoes/un_arms_embargoes/iran.

Small Arms Survey. “Illicit Trafficking.” Small Arms Survey (blog), 2019. http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/weapons-and-markets/transfers/illicit-trafficking.html.

Stewart, Yara Bayoumy, Phil. “Exclusive: Iran Steps up Weapons Supply to Yemen’s Houthis via Oman – Officials.” Reuters, October 20, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-iran-idUSKCN12K0CX.

United States Institute of Peace. “U.N. Report: Houthi Arms Resemble Iran’s.” Accessed April 21, 2021. https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/feb/14/un-report-houthi-arms-resemble-irans.

US Central Command Public Affairs. “U.S. Dhow Interdictions.” U.S. Central Command, February 19, 2020. https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/News-Article-View/Article/2087998/us-dhow-interdictions/.


[1] André Larané, “21st Century – The Least Violent World in History . . . – Herodote.Net,” herodote.net, 2018, https://www.herodote.net/Un_monde_moins_violent_que_jamais-article-1193.php?lang=en.

[2] Matt Schroeder, “The Illicit Arms Trade,” Federation of American Scientists, 2012, https://fas.org/asmp/campaigns/smallarms/IssueBrief3ArmsTrafficking.html.

[3] Robert Bunker and Alma Keshavarz, “‘Made in Yemen’: Houthi Exhibition Showcase New Drones, Missile and Naval Mines,” Small Wars Journal (blog), April 8, 2021, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/made-yemen-houthi-exhibition-showcase-new-drones-missiles-and-naval-mines.

[4] Tim Michetti, “A Guide to Illicit Iranian Weapon Transfers,” December 2020, 7; US Central Command Public Affairs, “U.S. Dhow Interdictions,” U.S. Central Command, February 19, 2020, https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/News-Article-View/Article/2087998/us-dhow-interdictions/.

[5] Al-Batati, “Revealed: How Iran Smuggles Weapons to the Houthis,” Arab News, October 1, 2020, https://arab.news/zeq7u.

[6] Yara Bayoumy Stewart Phil, “Exclusive: Iran Steps up Weapons Supply to Yemen’s Houthis via Oman – Officials,” Reuters, October 20, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-iran-idUSKCN12K0CX.

[7] US Central Command Public Affairs, “U.S. Dhow Interdictions.”

[8] Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, “OP-ED: Evidence Suggests Iranian Weapons Being Trafficked by Criminal Networks into the Horn of Africa,” Daily Maverick, August 16, 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-08-17-evidence-suggests-iranian-weapons-being-trafficked-by-criminal-networks-into-the-horn-of-africa/.

[9] US Central Command Public Affairs, “U.S. Dhow Interdictions.”

[10] Michelle Nichols, “Exclusive: U.N. Report Accuses Yemen Government of Money-Laundering, Houthis of Taking State Revenue,” Reuters, January 26, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/yemen-security-un-exclusive-int-idUSKBN29V2BY.

[11] Michetti, “A Guide to Illicit Iranian Weapon Transfers,” 18.

[12] “U.N. Report: Houthi Arms Resemble Iran’s,” United States Institute of Peace, accessed April 21, 2021, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/feb/14/un-report-houthi-arms-resemble-irans.

[13] Michetti, “A Guide to Illicit Iranian Weapon Transfers.”

[14] Will Neal, “Conflict in Yemen Sees Iranian Arms Trafficked to Somalia,” August 18, 2020, https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/12972-conflict-in-yemen-sees-iranian-arms-trafficked-to-somalia.

[15] Small Arms Survey, “Illicit Trafficking,” Small Arms Survey (blog), 2019, http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/weapons-and-markets/transfers/illicit-trafficking.html.

[16] Gustavo Mauricio Bastien Olvera, “The Security Council and the Illegal Transfer of Small Arms and Light Weapons to Non-State Actors,” Mexican Law Review 6, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 225–50, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1870-0578(16)30013-0.

[17] US Central Command Public Affairs, “U.S. Dhow Interdictions.”

[18] SIPRI, “UN Arms Embargo on Iran,” SIPRI, April 7, 2021, https://www.sipri.org/databases/embargoes/un_arms_embargoes/iran.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: