Weapons seized from smugglers near Yemen’s coastline. Image Credit: Australian Department of Defence

Photographs recently released by the Australian government show that light anti-armour weapons seized from a smuggling vessel near Yemen’s coast appear to have been manufactured in Iran, further suggesting that Tehran has had a hand in a high seas gunrunning operation to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The weapons, a selection of at least nine rocket-propelled grenade launchers, were among thousands of weapons seized by an Australian warship, the Darwin, in February from an Iranian dhow that was sailing under the name Samer. The photographs of the weapons, a sample of the much larger quantity of arms, were obtained by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based international research centre, after a long open-records dispute with the Australian military.

Iran has been repeatedly accused of providing arms helping to fuel one side of the war in Yemen, in which rebels from the country’s north, known as Al Houthis, ousted the government from the capital, Sana’a, in 2014. The United States and other Western governments have provided vast quantities of weapons, and other forms of military support, to the embattled government and its allies in a coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Matthew Schroeder, an analyst for the survey, said a study of the weapons’ characteristics and factory markings had showed that they match Iranian-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers previously documented in Iraq in 2008 and 2015, and in Ivory Coast in 2014 and 2015.

That finding follows a report late last year by Conflict Armament Research, a private arms consultancy, that said the available evidence pointed to an apparent “weapon pipeline, extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen, which involves the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles.”

For years, Iran has been under a series of international sanctions prohibiting it from exporting arms. The US has frequently claimed that Tehran has violated the sanctions in support of proxy forces in many conflicts including in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.

The grenade launchers that were the subject of Schroeder’s analysis are the central component of a reusable weapon system commonly called RPG-7s.

They were among 81 launchers seized on the Samer by Australian sailors, part of a hidden cargo that included 1,968 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 49 PK machine guns, 41 spare machine-gun barrels and 20 60-millimetre mortar tubes — enough weapons to arm a potent ground force.

Although the evidence was not conclusive, Schroeder said, “the seizure appears to be yet another example of Iranian weapons being shipped abroad despite long-standing UN [United Nations] restrictions on arms transfers from Iran.”

With Iran observing three days of mourning following the death of former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, it was not possible to contact the government for comment. But on previous occasions, Iran has refused to respond to inquiries about the smuggling.

The Samer episode was one of four interdictions of Iranian dhows from September 2015 through March 2016 that yielded, in total, more than 80 anti-tank guided missiles and 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles as well as sniper rifles, machine guns and almost 300 RPG launchers, according to data provided by the US Navy.

In 2013, the Navy stopped another dhow off the Yemeni coast and found it to be carrying shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and launchers, rifle and machine-gun cartridges, C4 plastic explosives, night-vision equipment and other military items.

In an interview in Bahrain, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, the commander of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, suggested that these seizures were part of a larger effort by Iran to move weapons to Al Houthis.

“Absolutely it’s not everything,” he said of the four seizures in 2015 and 2016. “These are the ones that I know of because we were able to interdict them.”

Donegan noted, however, that the captains operating the vessels are typically “out-of-work fishermen, smugglers; they’re not necessarily working for the government” of Iran. He added that the evidence of Iran’s hand in the shipments, while strong, was not ironclad.

This echoed the report by Conflict Armament Research, which said that anti-tank weapons apparently seized in Yemen have matched lot numbers for the same class of weapons seized on Iranian dhows but stopped short of claiming to have clear proof of an Iranian government hand.

The consultancy also documented weapons manufactured by China, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and perhaps in North Korea in seizures from the dhows.

The consultancy also did not suggest that the evidence indicated a direct handoff of weapons from the dhows to Al Houthi forces. Rather, it said, the weapons appear to be offloaded in Somalia and transferred to smaller vessels for smuggling into Southern Yemen.