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How False Stories of Iran Arming the Houthis Were Used to Justify War in Yemen

The totality of the evidence shows that the story of Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis is false.

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Peace talks between the Saudi-supported government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels ended in late December without any agreement to end the bombing campaign started by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies with US support last March. The rationale for the Saudi-led war on Houthis in Yemen has been that the Houthis are merely proxies of Iran, and the main alleged evidence for that conclusion is that Iran has been arming the Houthis for years.

The allegation of Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis – an allegation that has often been mentioned in press coverage of the conflict but never proven – was reinforced by a report released last June by a panel of experts created by the UN Security Council: The report concluded that Iran had been shipping arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen by sea since at least 2009. But an investigation of the two main allegations of such arms shipments made by the Yemeni government and cited by the expert panel shows that they were both crudely constructed ruses.

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that the story of the arms onboard the ship had been concocted by the government.

The government of the Republic of Yemen, then dominated by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, claimed that it had seized a vessel named Mahan 1 in Yemeni territorial waters on October 25, 2009, with a crew of five Iranians, and that it had found weapons onboard the ship. The UN expert panel report repeated the official story that authorities had confiscated the weapons and that the First Instance Court of Sana’a had convicted the crew of the Mahan 1 of smuggling arms from Iran to Yemen.

But diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Yemen released by WikiLeaks in 2010 reveal that, although the ship and crew were indeed Iranian, the story of the arms onboard the ship had been concocted by the government. On October 27, 2009, the US Embassy sent a cable to the State Department noting that the Embassy of Yemen in Washington had issued a press statement announcing the seizure of a “foreign vessel carrying a quantity of arms and other goods….” But another cable dated November 11, 2009, reported that the government had “failed to substantiate its extravagant public claims that an Iranian ship seized off its coast on October 25 was carrying military trainers, weapons and explosives destined for the Houthis.”

Furthermore, the cable continued, “sensitive reporting” – an obvious reference to US intelligence reports on the issue – “suggests that the ship was carrying no weapons at all.”

A follow-up Embassy cable five days later reported that the government had already begun to revise its story in light of the US knowledge that no arms had been found on board. “The ship was apparently empty when it was seized,” according to the cable. “However, echoing a claim by Yemen Ambassador al-Hajj, FM [Foreign Minister] Qaairbi told Pol Chief [chief of the US Embassy’s political section] on 11/15 the fact that the ship was empty indicated the arms had already been delivered.”

President Saleh had hoped to use the Mahan 1 ruse to get the political support of the US for a war to defeat the Houthis.

President Saleh had hoped to use the Mahan 1 ruse to get the political support of the US for a war to defeat the Houthis, which he was calling “Operation Scorched Earth.” But as a December 2009 cable noted, it was well known among Yemeni political observers that the Houthis were awash in modern arms and could obtain all they needed from the huge local arms market or directly from the Yemeni military itself.

Unlike the government’s story of the Mahan 1 and its phantom weapons, the official claim that a ship called the Jihan 1, seized on January 23, 2013, had arms onboard was true. But the totality of the evidence shows that the story of an Iranian arms shipment to the Houthis was false.

The ship was stopped in Yemeni waters by a joint patrol of the Yemeni Coast Guard and the US Navy, and an inspection found a cache of weapons and ammunition. The cargo including man-portable surface-to-air missiles, 122-millimeter rockets, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, C-4 plastic explosive blocks and equipment for improvised explosive devices.

Some weeks later, the UN expert panel inspected the weaponry said to have been found on board the Jihan 1 and found labels stuck on ammunition boxes with the legend “Ministry of Sepah” – the former name of the Iranian military logistics ministry. The panel report said the panel had determined that “all available information placed the Islamic Republic of Iran at the centre of the Jihan operation.”

But except for those labels, which could have been affixed to the boxes after the government had taken possession of the arms, nothing about the ship or the weapons actually pointed to Iran. All of the crew and the businessmen said to have arranged the shipment were Yemenis, according to the report. And the expert panel cited no evidence that the ship was Iranian or that the weapons were manufactured in Iran.

The expert panel cited no evidence that the ship was Iranian or that the weapons were manufactured in Iran.

The case rested on the testimony of the Yemeni crew members of the Jihan 1 – then still in government custody – who said they had sailed from Yemen to the Iranian port of Chabahar, had been taken to another Iranian port and then ferried by small boat to the Jihan 1 sitting off the Iranian coast. But although the panel said it had access to “waypoint data retrieved from Global Positioning System (GPS) devices,” it did not cite any such data that supported the crew members’ story. In fact, the panel acknowledged that it had “no information regarding the location at which the Jihan was loaded with arms….”

A crucial fact about the cargo, moreover, points not to Iran but to Yemen itself as the origin of the ship: The weapons on the ship were hidden under diesel fuel tanks and could be accessed only after those tanks had been emptied. The expert panel referred to that fact but failed to discuss its significance. But the June 2013 report of a UN Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said that Jihan 1’s crew members had “divulged to a diplomatic source who interviewed them in Aden that the diesel was bound for Somalia.” An unnamed Yemeni official confirmed that fact, which the crew members had kept from the Security Council expert panel, according to the UN Monitoring Group report.

The fact that the Jihan 1 was headed for Somalia indicates that the ship was engaged in a commercial smuggling operation – not a politically motivated delivery. The lucrative business of smuggling diesel fuel from Yemen to Somalia had long been combined with arms smuggling to the same country across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, as the Monitoring Group report made clear. The Monitoring Group report explained that the reason authorities in the Puntland region of Somalia had made it illegal to import petroleum products was that arms had so often been smuggled into ports on its coast hidden under diesel fuel.

The same UN Monitoring Group report also revealed that a series of arms shipments had been smuggled to Somalia in late 2012 – just before the Jihan 1 was seized – in which rocket-propelled grenade launchers were the primary component and IED components and electrical detonators were also prominent. Those were also major components of the Jihan 1 weapons shipment. The report said information received from the Puntland authorities and its own investigation had “established Yemen as a principal source of the these shipments.”

A key piece of evidence confirming that those arms had originated in Yemen was a communication from the Bulgarian government to the UN Monitoring Group indicating that all the rocket-propelled grenade rounds and propellant charges in one lot manufactured in Bulgaria and seized in Somalia had been delivered to the Yemeni armed forces in 2010.

The information in the Monitoring Group report thus points to Yemeni arms smugglers as the source of the cargo of weapons and diesel fuel aboard the Jihan 1. When the arms were seized by the joint US-Yemen patrol, the Yemeni government evidently decided to exploit it by creating a new story of an Iranian arms shipment to the Houthis, and later used the Yemeni crew to provide the details to the UN expert panel.

The Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group’s report created an obvious problem for the official story of the Jihan 1, and the Yemeni government’s anti-Iran, Western backers sought to give the story a new twist. Reuters quoted a “Western diplomat” as citing the Jihan 1 arms shipment as evidence that Iran had actually been involved in supplying arms to al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia. The anonymous source noted that the cargo had included C-4 explosives such as were used by al-Shabaab for terrorist bombings, whereas the Houthis were not known to carry out such operations. But that claim was hardly credible, because al-Shabaab had close ties to al-Qaeda and was therefore an enemy of Iran. It has not been repeated except in pro-Saudi and pro-Israeli media outlets.

The Jihan 1 story and the broader narrative of intercepted Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, as recycled by the UN Security Council expert panel, have nevertheless become key pieces of the widely accepted history of the regional conflicts involving Iran.

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