The US Navy's recent seizure of 1,400 AK-47 rifles and ammunition from a fishing boat has put Iran's role in fueling the deadly conflict in Yemen in the spotlight once again.
US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) said it boarded the boat on December 20 in the North Arabian Sea, seized the weapons cache and five crew members -- who identified themselves as Yemeni -- before scuttling the vessel.
Yemen has been wracked by civil war since 2014, pitting the Iran-backed Houthis against the internationally recognised government.
"US 5th Fleet ships seized approximately 1,400 AK-47 assault rifles and 226,600 rounds of ammunition from a stateless fishing vessel," a US Navy statement on December 22 read.
"The stateless vessel was assessed to have originated in Iran and transited international waters along a route historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully to the Houthis in Yemen."
The Bahrain-based US 5th Fleet has seized approximately 8,700 illicit weapons this year.
The United States as well as Saudi Arabia -- which is leading the military coalition backing the Yemeni government against the Houthis -- has long accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons.
"The direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of weapons to the Houthis violates UN Security Council Resolutions and US sanctions," the US statement added.
The five crew members will be repatriated, the navy said, adding that the boat was sunk because it was a "hazard" for commercial shipping.
On December 23, the coalition said it targeted a Houthi military camp in Sanaa, and destroyed seven drone and weapons storehouses, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
Earlier last week, it targeted Sanaa airport, whose operations have largely ceased because of a Saudi-led blockade since August 2016, with exemptions for aid flights.
IRGC fueling humanitarian crisis
Despite the escalating humanitarian crisis and repeated appeals for peace, Iran through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) continues to pursue a path of war in Yemen, sending operatives and commanders to the frontlines and smuggling weapons into the country that are fuelling the bloody conflict.
Evidence abounds of the IRGC's role in exacerbating the conflict.
Most notable are the numerous shipments intercepted by international and Arab coalition naval forces of Iranian arms destined for the Houthis off the Yemeni coast.
"Iran has repeatedly denied any involvement in the trafficking of arms to the Houthis. However, a preponderance of evidence points to Iranian state supply," said a recent study by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.
"The existence of long-established commercial trade routes linking the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden has facilitated the movement of illicit weapon shipments," the report said.
"Frequent rendezvouses and trans-shipment between dhows of Iranian, Yemeni and Somali origin have served to disguise the provenance of weapon shipments and evade detection by authorities," it said.
"The illegal flow of weapons to Yemen is enabling the brutal Houthi offensive against Marib, increasing the suffering of civilians. Further fighting -- whether in Marib or elsewhere -- will only bring more sufferin," the US Department of State said December 23.
"The Yemeni parties must reach a political settlement together to end the war," it said.
Since September 2015, international naval forces have carried out at least 12 maritime interdictions of weapon shipments believed to have been destined for the Houthis in Yemen.
Most recently, two maritime interdictions of arms-smuggling dhows were carried out by the USS Winston Churchill in February and the USS Monterey in May off the coast of Somalia and in the Arabian Sea, respectively.
Seized weapons originating from Iran were also removed from two separate vessels in November 2019 and February 2020, and kept in US custody while assessment of the material was conducted, according to US Central Command.
This was the United States' largest-ever seizure of weapon shipments from Iran.
More than 80% of the population of about 30 million require humanitarian assistance.