U.S. Seeks Forfeiture of Iranian Weapons Seized en Route to Yemen

December 14, 2020

Publication Type: 

  • International Enforcement Actions

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile
  • Military

Related Country: 

  • Yemen

Author: 

Austin Bodetti and Valerie Lincy

On October 29, the U.S. Justice Department confirmed the details of two previously seized shipments of Iranian-origin advanced conventional weapons and announced legal efforts to forfeit the weapons. In a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Justice Department requested the forfeiture of weapons interdicted by U.S. forces in 2019 and 2020 en route to Yemen – the government's largest-ever forfeiture action for weapons from Iran.

The seizure and forfeiture effort are part of a broader U.S. campaign to block Iranian weapons smuggling and punish the networks involved in such smuggling, particularly those operated by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is an arm of Iran’s military and a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. The group plays a central role in Iranian efforts to supply weapons to proxies, notably to the Houthis in Yemen – the presumptive end-user of the recently seized weapons. Such transfers may violate a United Nations embargo on weapons deliveries to Yemen because of the ongoing conflict between the Houthis and the U.N.-recognized Yemeni government. The weapons themselves are also notable, in that these systems have been used by the Houthis in attacks on Saudi Arabia.

While civil asset forfeiture is regularly used by the U.S. government to disrupt money laundering, drug trafficking, and terrorist financing, its use as a tool against proliferators and sanctions evaders is a more recent development. U.S. civil forfeiture law enables the Justice Department to seize goods suspected of use in criminal activity without having to charge the owners of the property with a crime. Unlike seizures involving cash or smuggled oil, it is unclear how the government plans to dispose of the goods in this case and extract value from them once the forfeiture is granted.

Iranian-Origin Weapons
 

The U.S. Navy Central Command concluded that the weapons seized from the Al Raheeb in November 2019 and from the Al Qanas 1 in February 2020 "are of Iranian manufacture and are consistent with known Iranian weapons," following "extensive inspection of the weapons and weapon components." In a briefing on February 19, following the interdiction of the Al Qanas 1, a Central Command official assessed that "there's just not any plausible way that these missiles and weapons could have gotten on a dhow between Iran and Yemen except that the IRGC has continued a pattern of smuggling to the Houthis." This conclusion is based on an analysis of the weapon components, which reflect design characteristics specific to Iranian systems, Persian markings on the components and labels, and connections to an Iranian manufacturer.

The United States also provided the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen with access to the seized weapons. The Panel, which has long investigated the origin of arms shipments to Yemen, likewise concluded that the weapons in the earlier Al Raheeb shipment are likely of Iranian origin. The Panel’s investigation of the more recent Al Qanas 1 seizure is ongoing.

The Al Raheeb – November 2019
 

The USS Forrest Sherman boarded the Al Raheeb on November 25, 2019, while on patrol in the Arabian Sea. The dhow vessel, manned by a Yemeni crew, was sailing without a maritime flag at the time.

The Navy seized a range of Iranian-made weapons and other military products from the Al Raheeb, including 21 Dehlavieh anti-tank guided missiles, five nearly fully assembled type 358 surface-to-air missiles, components for the 351 land attack cruise missile (also known as the Quds 1) and the C-802 anti-ship cruise missile (also known as the Noor), unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) components, thermal scopes, and approximately 13,000 "Plain Detonator, No. 8" blasting caps. According to the Justice Department filing, "U.S. military forces use approximately this many blasting caps over a year."

The 351 land attack cruise missile matches the missiles used in Iran's September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia's Aramco oil refineries. The Dehlavieh is an Iranian copy of the Russian Kornet anti-tank guided missile, with a difference in launch tube markings that distinguishes it from the Russian model. Little is known about the 358 missile, which the Navy has described as a "relatively new weapon" designed by Iran and "exported only to Iranian proxies"; this seizure apparently marked the first time that the 358 missile was interdicted by the United States. The seized UAV components include engines and servos, which are consistent with components that have been identified on the Qasef and Sammad UAVs recovered in Yemen.

Some of the items from the seizure are connected to a specific Iranian defense manufacturer. The thermal weapon sights came from Rayan Roshd Afzar Company, which supplies the IRGC with UAV and aerospace components. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Rayan Roshd on July 18, 2017, for proliferation activities involving Iran's military and for the firm's support of IRGC efforts to "restrict and block social media and telecommunications content in Iran."

The Justice Department complaint says little about the smuggling network behind the Al Raheeb shipment, only describing the dhow as "linked" to the IRGC-Quds Force. The complaint does connect the shipment to sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department on Iranian businessman Abdolhossein Khedri and several of his companies on December 11, 2019. According to the Treasury, Khedri uses his shipping companies and their fleet of vessels to smuggle "lethal aid from Iran to Yemen" on behalf of the Quds Force. Nonetheless, the nature of Khedri’s ties to the Al Raheeb and its cargo remains unclear.

The Al Qanas – February 2020
 

The USS Normandy intercepted the Al Qanas 1, another flagless, Yemeni-operated dhow, on February 9, 2020, in the Arabian Sea. According to the Navy, the vessel was carrying 150 additional Dehlavieh anti-tank guided missiles, three 358 surface-to-air missiles, components for unmanned maritime systems, and thermal weapon scopes.

The Justice Department complaint quotes the U.N. Panel of Experts for Yemen as assessing that the seized items are "evidently of Iranian origin." The Panel also found, according to the Justice Department, that the serial numbers on the scopes matched those previously imported by the State Purchasing Organization of Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which oversees imports and exports of conventional weapons.

As in the earlier seizure, the thermal weapon scopes were produced by Rayan Roshd. More worrisome, U.S. investigators found that some components for the 358 surface-to-air missile were of U.S. origin, including a high-frequency communications antenna and an inertial navigational system controller. These components are considered "critical to the functionality of the weapon," according to the Justice Department.

U.S. officials have said little publicly about the 358 missile. Citing unnamed U.S. military officials, The New York Times reported that the Houthis had deployed the weapon against U.S. drones flying over Yemen. The officials described the weapon as a cruise missile designed to avoid defensive measures and capable of bringing down military helicopters and other aircraft that U.S. forces have used in Yemen.

Case Status
 

The Justice Department filed its complaint against the seized weapons in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on August 17, unsealing the document on October 29. The weapons remain in U.S. possession, pending a judgment on the forfeiture request. U.S. officials have yet to clarify what the government will do with the Iranian arms if the request is approved.

The United Nations has reported that the United States transferred the Al Raheeb to Yemen’s coast guard. According to the website Vessel Finder, the Al Raheeb last reported its location in early June, when it was sailing in the Red Sea under the flag of Saudi Arabia. The status of the Al Qanas 1 remains unclear. In February, the Navy also surrendered custody of that vessel and its crew to Yemen’s coast guard, which has made no further announcements about the episode.

Despite a growing number of reports from the United States, the United Nations, and the news media to the contrary, Iran continues to deny sending weapons to the Houthis.

Footnotes: 

“Central Command Press Briefing via Teleconference from Tampa, Florida, on Recent Maritime Seizures of Iranian-Produced Weapons,” U.S. Department of Defense, February 19, 2020, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/governments/united-states/executive-branch/department-defense/central-command-press-briefing-teleconference-tampa-florida-recent-maritime.

“Final Report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen (S/2020/326),” U.N. Security Council, April 28, 2020, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/multilateral-organizations/united-nations/un-panel-experts/final-report-panel-experts-yemen-s2020326.

John Ismay and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “New Iranian Missiles Pose Threat to U.S. Aircraft in Yemen, Pentagon Says,” The New York Times, February 19, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/19/us/iran-missiles-yemen.html.

“Treasury Designates IRGC-QF Weapon Smuggling Network and Mahan Air General Sales Agents,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 11, 2019, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/governments/united-states/executive-branch/department-treasury/treasury-designates-irgc-qf-weapon-smuggling-network-mahan-air-general-sales.

“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.

United States Verified Complaint for Forfeiture in Rem, U.S. Department of Justice, August 17, 2020, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/governments/united-states/executive-branch/department-justice/complaint-forfeiture-missiles.