IRGC arms smuggling to Houthis squanders chance for Yemen peace

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi and AFP

Carrying weapons, members of the Iran-backed Houthis attend a rally in Sanaa on January 27. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Carrying weapons, members of the Iran-backed Houthis attend a rally in Sanaa on January 27. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

ADEN -- Talks on Yemen's war kicked off in the Saudi capital on Wednesday (March 30), but experts say there can be little real progress towards peace without the presence of the Iran-backed Houthis, who are not in attendance.

The week-long discussions in Riyadh are hosted by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and include United Nations (UN) envoy Hans Grundberg and US Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking.

"It is not clear where the Riyadh consultations will lead," said Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies director Maged al-Madhaji.

"The meeting's agenda is still very general, and the discussions will be limited to one party and will not include the Houthis," he said. "With regard to the peace track, it will not lead to anything because the Houthis are not there."

GCC secretary-general Nayef al-Hajraf speaks during a conference on Yemen's war in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on March 30. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]

GCC secretary-general Nayef al-Hajraf speaks during a conference on Yemen's war in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on March 30. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]

With the Houthis absent, the talks "are missing an important part of the equation", a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Houthis have rejected joining the talks.

Ongoing arms smuggling

The Houthis on Saturday announced a ceasefire, which they have so far upheld.

But the move follows a volley of attacks against Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, the Iran-backed group fired drones and missiles at 16 targets in Saudi Arabia, hitting Aramco's petroleum products distribution station in Jeddah and causing a fire in two storage tanks.

A few days earlier, they launched a wave of cross-border drone and missile attacks at civilian facilities in Saudi Arabia.

They used Iranian cruise missiles to attack a desalination plant in al-Shuqaiq and an Aramco petroleum distribution plant in Jizan.

The Arab coalition also destroyed two boat drones off the coast of al-Hodeidah, which the Houthis were reportedly planning to use in attacks on oil tankers crossing Bab al-Mandeb strait.

The Houthis' attacks signal "Iran's malicious intentions towards the security and stability of the region, with its continued smuggling of weapons to the Houthis", said Deputy Minister of Legal Affairs and Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez.

"Iran deceives the international community and the United States when it demands that sanctions imposed on it be lifted," he said, referring to the ongoing talks that could see Iran return to the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran has continued to smuggle arms to the Houthis, officials said, fueling regional tensions and squandering the opportunity to achieve lasting peace in Yemen.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) smuggling networks have repeatedly attempted to breach a UN-imposed arms embargo that bans the supply of weapons to the Houthis, Abdul Hafeez said.

"Hardly a period passes without us hearing about a seizure of Iranian weapons by the US Navy," he added.

In December, for example, the US Navy seized 1,400 AK-47 rifles and ammunition from a fishing boat in the North Arabian Sea suspected of originating in Iran.

In January, a confidential UN report concluded that thousands of rocket launchers, machine guns, sniper rifles and other weapons the US Navy seized in the Arabian Sea likely originated from a port in Iran.

'Iran's hand in Yemen'

Lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran will likely lead to an increased flow of arms to the Houthis "and we will see more Houthi attacks", Abdul Hafeez said.

By causing instability in the region, Iran seeks to gain leverage in its nuclear deal negotiations, he said.

The Houthis play a part in that plan as they are "Iran's hand in Yemen", he said, noting that this is why they have been putting up roadblocks to peace initiatives.

"The IRGC is the body ruling Iran militarily and also directing its militias abroad," said Abaad Centre for Research and Studies director Abdul Salam Mohammed, adding that Iran and its proxies are a danger to regional stability.

The Houthi movement is "a tool of the IRGC in the region, and therefore it cannot stop its activities unless it is told to do so by the operations room in Iran", he said.

The IRGC's smuggling networks have become highly efficient over the years and help it generate income, which allows it to keep funding its proxies in the region, said economist Abdul Aziz Thabet.

Meanwhile, 80% of the population in Yemen depend on aid amid a humanitarian crisis triggered by the seven-year war, he said.

Amid the immense human suffering, he said, "Iran and the Houthis are only interested in smuggling weapons manufactured in Russia, China and Iran".

Thabet said the Houthis have repeatedly proven they are "a tool to protect the interests of Iran and its allies" rather than a group that acts in the best interests of Yemen and its people.

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