U.S. Navy Seizes Suspected Shipment of Iranian Weapons to Yemen

May 27, 2021

Publication Type: 

  • International Enforcement Actions

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile
  • Military

Related Country: 

  • Yemen


Austin Bodetti

On May 8, the U.S. Navy released a statement describing the seizure of “an illicit shipment of weapons” in the northern Arabian Sea that had taken place over the previous two days. On May 6, the USS Monterey, a guided-missile cruiser, intercepted a traditional sailing ship known as a dhow during what the Navy described as “a routine flag verification boarding conducted in international water in accordance with customary international law.”

According to the Navy, the arms discovered on the stateless dhow included “dozens of advanced Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers” plus an unspecified number of “advanced optical sights.” The Monterey seized the weapons but released the dhow’s crew after questioning.

The Navy offered few details about where the dhow had originated, where it was traveling, and who awaited its cargo. The press release only went so far as to say, “The original source and intended destination of the materiel is currently under investigation,” adding, “Assessment of the findings will be an interagency effort.”

Reporting by the Associated Press sheds more light on the seizure. According to the May 9 report, citing an unnamed U.S. defense official, the dhow had come from Iran and appeared to be delivering the weapons to the Houthis, an Iranian-backed rebel group that controls much of Yemen. Tracking with this account, a photograph of the dhow’s cargo featured in the Navy’s press release shows a box of rations with Farsi (Persian) labeling. The Associated Press report also noted similarities between the weapons captured by the Monterey and the cargo found aboard previous Houthi-bound dhows interdicted by the United States and its allies.

According to a report by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen earlier this year, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States intercepted at least six merchant vessels going to Yemen between 2018 and 2020. Of those six, five vessels were transporting at least one type of weapon also discovered during the Navy’s May 2021 seizure: Chinese-made Type 56 assault rifles, Russian-made 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, or Russian-produced PK machine guns. Moreover, several of the vessels were carrying arms manufactured in or linked to Iran.

Any provision of weapons to the Houthis contravenes international law. The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on the Yemeni militants in 2015 with the adoption of resolution 2216. To facilitate enforcement, the resolution empowers U.N. member states “to inspect […] all cargo to Yemen, in their territory, including seaports and airports, if the State concerned has information that provides reasonable grounds to believe the cargo contains items the supply, sale, or transfer of which is prohibited” under the arms embargo.

Iran has long rejected allegations of violating resolution 2216. Despite Iranian denials, the recent U.N. report concluded that Iran “provides political and military support to the Houthis” and that “an increasing body of evidence suggests that individuals or entities in the Islamic Republic of Iran supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis.” Just last year, the U.S. Justice Department also accused the Quds Force, a wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of arranging two shipments of blasting caps, missiles, small arms, and thermal scopes to the Houthis. The U.S. Navy intercepted both deliveries.

After those seizures, the U.S. government turned to the legal system to take formal possession of the weapons: the Justice Department filed a verified complaint for forfeiture in rem with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This step initiated a several-month process that enables the government to take ownership of property suspected of involvement in criminal activity unless the original owners challenge the government’s claim in court. Once the Navy completes its investigation of the May 2021 seizure, the weapons captured by the Monterey may follow a similar path.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.


“USS Monterey Seizes Illicit Weapons in the North Arabian Sea,” U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs, May 8, 2021, available at https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/News-Stories/Article/2600834/uss-monterey-seizes-illicit-weapons-in-the-north-arabian-sea/, accessed on May 22, 2021.

Jon Gambrell, “U.S. Navy Seizes Weapons in Arabian Sea Likely Bound for Yemen,” Associated Press, May 9, 2021, available at https://apnews.com/article/yemen-middle-east-e4bde7250333a85445fe9a9f0f1c64a8, accessed on May 22, 2021.

“Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen in Accordance with Resolution 2511 (2020),” U.N. Security Council, January 25, 2021, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/multilateral-organizations/united-nations/un-panel-experts/final-report-panel-experts-yemen-accordance-resolution-2511-2020, accessed on May 22, 2021.

Resolution 2216, U.N. Security Council, April 14, 2015, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/multilateral-organizations/united-nations/un-security-council/resolution-2216-2015, accessed on May 22, 2021.

“United States Files Complaint to Forfeit Iranian Missiles and Sells Previously Transferred Iranian Petroleum,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 29, 2020, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/governments/united-states/executive-branch/department-justice/united-states-files-complaint-forfeit-iranian-missiles-sells-previously, accessed on May 22, 2021.