A US destroyer in the Red Sea boarded a freighter the Americans suspected of delivering Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The search of the Panamanian-flagged Saisaban by USS Sterett earlier this month turned up empty. But it marked the US Navy’s first boarding operation in the effort to make sure Iran doesn’t supply game-changing weapons such as surface-to-air missiles that would threaten Saudi-led airstrikes against the Shiite Houthi rebels, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing US officials.
The airstrikes began two weeks ago after Houthi rebels, who have taken over the capital and overrun much of the country, forced American-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country.
US and Saudi officials insist Tehran has been providing arms, weapons, training and funding for the Houthis for years—allegations Iran denies. A senior defense official said the US knows Tehran is trying to supply the militant group with surface-to-air missiles.
Since the Red Sea search, the US military has stepped up its surveillance in the region so it can keep a closer eye on what Iran and the Houthis are doing to turn the tide in their favor, the US officials said.
More than a dozen nations have warships in the region, with Saudi and Egyptian sailors taking the lead in enforcing a naval blockade that has limited the Houthi fighters’ ability to secure more firepower from outside Yemen, US military officials said.
The Saudi-led airstrikes have damaged many runways in Yemen, making it difficult for Iran to fly weapons into the country.
“[The Iranians] don’t have an easy route in from the air. They don’t have an easy route in from the sea,” a senior US military official was quoted as saying. “There’s lots of intelligence focused on what they’re doing—from loading to potential delivery.”
Iran has long been suspected of aiding the Houthis militarily. Two years ago, Yemeni authorities seized a ship off the coast packed with weapons, including surface-to-air-missiles and Katyusha rockets, and arrested its crew members.
Yemeni officials suspected the weapons were bound for Houthi militants as part of an effort by Tehran to back the fighters, the newspaper said.
In recent days, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of sending members of its powerful Revolutionary Guard force to advise the Houthis.
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