Are the U.S. Claims that Iran Is Arming the Yemeni Houthis Credible?
Investigative journalist Gareth Porter scrutinizes the claims made by the U.S. and finds credibility of Its evidence highly questionable
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries in Baltimore.
For the last 19 months, a Saudi led coalition has been bombarding Yemen from the sky bringing devastation to one of the world’s poorest countries. The Saudi led US backed coalition invasion of Yemen which is armed and fully supported by France and the UK was originally initiated on the basis of restoring the Yemeni President Abd Mansur Hadi into power. President Hadi was forced out of power by the Yemeni Houthis over escalating power sharing disputes. The consequences of this war has been devastating. Schools, hospitals, wedding parties, funerals, market places, shopping ports, shipping ports, as well as sites belonging to Yemeni ancient heritage, have all been bombed by the Saudi led – US backed coalition.
According to the United Nations Office of the High commissioner for Human Rights: The conflict has also resulted in at least 10,000 casualties – by other sources within Yemen, they claim much higher figures of the casualties – And it has forced approximately 560,000 children out of school, and resulted in the near destruction of the entire country’s health system. A crippling naval blockade imposed on the country has also pushed 14 million Yemenis, nearly half the population, to the brink of starvation with widespread malnutrition being reported.
In a recent article published by Consortium News entitled “Justifying the Saudi Slaughter in Yemen”, investigative journalist Gareth Porter says “The Obama administration has carried out a deliberately deceptive campaign accusing Iran of covertly sending arms to the Houthis by sea, a claim that Washington cites to help justify the Saudi massive air attack against the Houthis that began last year.”
Joining us today to speak about his article, is Gareth Porter. Gareth is an historian and investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare and a regular contributor to the Middle East Eye among other publications.
Thank you so much for joining us Gareth.
GARETH PORTER: Thank you Sharmini.
PERIES: Gareth briefly describe the situation in Yemen. How it was first started and the role the United States is doing to support the military actions in Yemen.
PORTER: Well I think that your intro has well sort of summed up the history very briefly of this conflict. The Houthis did take power in 2014 after a brief sort of florescence of an Arab Spring in Yemen which has now been largely forgotten or entirely forgotten in which the then Hadi government, the US and Saudi backed government had really lost its legitimacy and that’s the situation in which the Saudis then begin to prepare for this massive air attack which has been so horribly devastating to this country. The United States clearly was involved in helping them prepare for it. It was consulted. It gave its approval for it and of course the United States has provided not just the bombs that have been used including the cluster munitions that have been dropped on civilian targets in Yemen but also has refueled every or all of those flights that required refueling in the process. So, it is directly implicated in the entire war. It is a direct party to it. It is responsible for it.
PERIES: Now in your article you claim that there are at least 4 examples of the seizure of arms shipments which were really destined for Somalia but the United States claimed that they were headed to Yemen and sent by the Iranian government. Explain these incidents you are talking about in the article and why you challenged them.
PORTER: You know Sharmini the thing that needs to be understood about this propaganda line by the United States is that they are accusing the Iranian government of wanting to supply these arms directly to the Houthis directly through these set of sea based fishing boats going through the Arabian Sea. And they’re claiming that these 4 instances that I talk about in the article are examples of the Iranian government sending these arms to the Houthis. In fact, what I show in my article is that these arms that were captured on board several fishing dhows were in fact part of a scheme of armed smuggling that was arranged clearly by arms smugglers in Somalia working with armed smugglers either in Iran, that is private arm smugglers in Iran or most likely in Yemen.
This is a pattern that has been uncovered by a UN monitoring group which wrote a report in 2015, which has been largely ignored or completely ignored except for me, that pointed out that there was a pattern here where Yemeni and Iranian ships, fishing dhows are part of illegal fishing networks operating offshore off the Somalian coast. And there is a belief of n the part of these researchers that it is these illegal fishing networks that are linked up with the arms smuggling. That these fishing dhows that have been doing illegal fishing are also smuggling arms either from Iran by the arms smugglers that operate out of Iran or Yemen into Somalia.
Well the first one of these 4 incidents of interception of a fishing vessel or a fishing dhow in or near the Arabian Sea occurred in September 2015. This is a few months after the Saudis had begun their bombing in late March of that year and the Saudis were the ones who announced that first interception. They said it was by a member or their own coalition, the Saudi led coalition. Apparently that is true that one of the navies associated with that coalition was the one that intercepted this fishing dhow. The Saudis of course claimed that this fishing dhow had on it, arms that were Iranian that came from Iran that the crew of this ship was Iranian and that it was headed from Iran to Yemen to unload the weapons to the Houthis. Now it was then later announced by the US navy that it was indeed a ship that appeared to have come from Iran. They claimed it came from Iran.
They said that they believe that it was on it’s way to Yemen to provide arms to the Houthis. But it was acknowledged that the crew had claimed that the ship was in fact on it’s way to Somalia. The US statement did not explain why the US was insisting in it’s assessment as it was called was that those arms ultimately were destined to go to the Houthis. So that was the first one. Now the second interception was in February of 2016 and this one was by a Australian naval vessel and in this case the Australian Defense Ministry actually put out a statement that acknowledged that the ship was in fact headed toward Somalia. That it’s destination was Somalia. IT of course recorded a large number of weapons that included AK-47s and RPGs , anti-Tank missiles and some other arms.
So this was a case where the intercepting navy actually renounced the propaganda view of the United States and made a statement clearly saying they were intended for Somalia. But then the US military intervened, the central command put out a statement, the naval arm of the central command put out a statement saying that it was nevertheless the US assessment that these arms which they said again they believed came from Iran were headed to Yemen to go to the Houthis.
So in this case the US military was actually contradicting their allies who were part of this combined set of ships who were carrying out patrolling in the Arabian Sea and associated waters. That’s a very interesting aspect of that second interception. The third one was even more of a contradiction between the intercepting country’s navy and the US military. Because in that case the French intercepted the fishing dhow and the combined maritime forces which was the coalition of navies that were carrying out this patrolling in the Arabian Sea and nearby waters, actually put out a formal statement that said that they considered the ship to be part of a shipment going to Somalia. That this was the intended destination of the ship and that this was not intended to go to Yemen. Now the interesting thing is that they also said that they were carrying this out on behalf of the UN resolution that forbade the import of arms into Somalia.
So, they official associated this interception with the arms embargo on Somalia. Then after that, immediately after that the US military again repeated their own assessment saying that they considered this fishing dhow to be on it’s way to Yemen. Ultimately that was going to be the ultimate destination. Again even though they had to acknowledge that fishing crews had said that the destination was Somalia. So again, we have this over contradiction between the US military and the Obama administration in one and hand and their allies who are part of this combined forces of doing maritime patrolling.
Now the final one which was also in March a couple weeks later, a week or so later, was by the United States Navy itself. That gave the US Navy an opportunity to put out their own press release which pressed the propaganda theme that the United States believed that these arms that they’d captured from the fishing dhow were in fact intended for the Houthis. But again not giving any reason why they believe that was so. So I actually inquired with the press officer of the central command’s naval contingent and I asked why is it that the US military keeps saying that they believe that these arms are headed to or intended for the Houthis in Yemen whereas the fishing crew keeps saying that they were intended for Somalia. Indeed your allies are saying the same thing.
Well his answer was we’re not going to answer any questions about the intelligence or other reasons why we are taking this position. So it’s clear to me that they did not have any real evidence to back this and that this is really a deliberate deception. A rather shallow and obvious deception which is really being carried out as a gesture to Saudi Arabia to show that the United States is support. Whereas the Saudis are expressing suspicion that the US no longer supports them.
PERIES: And what interest does the US have in blaming Iran in all of this. I imagine Iran is of course denying that there’s such shipments taking place. Do we know that for sure? Are the Iranians shipping arms to the Houthis in Yemen?
PORTER: Well we can’t say with certainty that the Iranians are not shipping any arms to the Houthis. There’s been a recent story claiming that the Iranians have used a land entry into Yemen from Oman but the place where this supposedly has been happening is an area that is controlled by the Hadi government and its allies. So, it wouldn’t be easy presumably to do that.
But I think in the larger picture, the main point here is that the Iranians do not really have a strong reason to be sending the kinds of arms that have been found on board these ships to the Houthis because these are ordinary arms that the Houthis already have in such great abundance that it would be pointless for Iran to try to supply those to the Houthis. In fact, they would be taking risks that would not be worth it. Indeed, the more important fact is that what the Houthis need is ammunition. That’s probably what they’re running short of given the fact that they have enough weapons but they don’t have large stocks of ammunition.
So, the important thing is that none of these ships that were intercepted have any ammunition on them and that really is another giveaway as to the lie that is accompanying the propaganda claims that have been made on this issue.
PERIES: And explain the Somalia angle here. Why are there so much arms being shipped to Somalia?
PORTER: Well there are two reasons really. One of which I emphasized in my piece. That is that many of the arms that have gone to Somalia or in fact most of them in the past have been to supply Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamist group that’s affiliated with Al Qaeda. Of course, they are enemies of Iran which is another reason they would never get themselves involved in any effort to provide weapons to Somalia. But the point I make here is that – there’s a second reason, that they’re going to Somalia which is that Somalia is the entry point for arms that go to Eritrea.
So, that’s a secondary reason for arms that are smuggled into Somalia. But the point I make here in my article is that it has been discovered by a UN monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea that the reason that ships have been found to have an origin in Iran is that the illegal fishing networks that have been carrying out illegal fishing offshore of Somalia for many years now are dominated by Iranian and Yemeni ships. So, it’s logical that you’re going to find some of the interceptions were vessels that were built in Iran and have Iranian ownership. That would explain the pattern that one sees in the foreign receptions.
PERIES: Now in your article you also cite Secretary of State John Kerry in a PBS interview where he justifies the suspicion on Iran by saying first there was nefarious activities and that there’s been a number of flights back and forth between Iran and the Houthi controlled area of Yemen. Is that not evidence that there is such activity taking place where the Iranians are sending ammunition or arms to the Houthis?
PORTER: Well it’s conceivable that one of these air flights of course has had some weapons on it but I don’t think that the United States certainly has any evidence that that is the case and again the kinds of weapons that could be shipped by air would not really materially help the Houthis in terms of the kind of weaponry that they’ve been using. I think the only real issue here of significance in terms of new weaponry is an improvement of a ground to air missile that the Houthis have used or has shown up in the Houthi arsenal which both the Houthis and the Iranians have said the Houthis have actually proved an existing weapon.
Now the Iranians may well have provided some expertise to the Houthis to help them do that. But other than that, the weaponry that has been at issue in the charges about Iranian help to the Houthis are simply, it’s not credible that the Iranians would bother to try to send them more weapons because they have them in such abundance. The number of weapons per person in Yemen is probably the highest in the world. The Houthis have obtained about one third maybe slightly less than one third of the arsenal of weapons that the Yemeni army had at the time that the Houthis were taking power in 2014. So they simply have more weapons than they know what to do with.
PERIES: And then finally Gareth, when the Saudis bombed the funeral a few weeks ago, the United States also came out and condemned that attack as if they had nothing to do with it. These are Saudi led but US backed attacks and they have been providing all sorts of strategic support to the Saudis. Are they not then also to be blamed in this war crimes that Saudis are carrying out?
PORTER: I think there’s no question that a legal scholar could make a very strong case that all of the violations of the laws of war that the Saudis have carried out in Yemen must be shared by the United States. It is so responsible for every aspect of that war in terms of both supply of weapons and enabling it through it’s refueling of Saudi flights. So yes, I think the United States very much stands to be accused of being co-responsible for the war crimes that have been committed there.
PERIES: And not only the United States but UK, France who’s also selling arms to the Saudis’, not to mention the Canadians who are also going through their finalization of arms sales deals to the Saudis.
PORTER: Well as is in the case of some other instances in the past I think you’ll find where you have an issue of supply of either weaponry or chemicals that western governments are very much involved at least indirectly in the crimes that have been committed in the Middle East.
PERIES: Alright Gareth, I thank you so much for being on the Real News and look forward to your further investigation on these matters.
PORTER: Thank you again Sharmini.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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