US Navy seizes Iranian missiles heading to Houthis

What happened: US officials announced yesterday that the US Navy had intercepted a “significant cache” of advanced guided missile parts heading from Iran to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Navy and Coast Guard personnel discovered the shipment after boarding a small unflagged wooden ship crewed by Yemeni nationals in the north Arabian Sea.

  • US and Western officials have long maintained that Iran was arming the Houthi side in Yemen’s civil war. The Houthis have also regularly fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, targeting key energy facilities and airbases.
  • Israel has in recent months highlighted the growing missile threat from Yemen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during his meeting yesterday in Lisbon with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that: “Iran is increasing its aggression as we speak, even today, in the region. They’re trying to have staging grounds against us and the region from Iran itself, from Iraq, from Syria, from Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen and we are actively engaged in countering that aggression.”

Context: Netanyahu and Pompeo met for a snap meeting to primarily discuss the Iranian threat. From Israel’s point of view, Iranian proxies armed with precision-guided missiles is a major strategic threat, as this BICOM report from February and updated in October explains.

  • Last night, reported explosions took place at an Iranian-affiliated military base near the Syria-Iraq border. Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes in Syria (and elsewhere in the region) over the last several years to thwart Iran’s military ambitions.
  • The New York Times reported yesterday that Iran is using the continuing chaos in Iraq to move short-range ballistic missiles into the country. US intelligence sources believes that the weapons build-up is being conducted through pro-Iranian Shiite militias and could pose a threat to US military forces in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
  • In reference to stopping Iran’s regional ambitions, Netanyahu said yesterday: “The Israeli-American policy is key to that effort, that serves the purposes of many, many countries in the region.”
  • The Wall Street Journal also reported yesterday that the US is considering sending 14,000 more troops to the Middle East to counter the Iranian threat, including dozens of naval vessels and other military hardware. The US has already deployed an additional 14,000 personnel to the region since May.

Looking ahead: The US “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran has thrown the Islamic Republic into an acute economic crisis, leading to violent demonstrations inside the country last month. Iran has responded by increasing its nuclear activity and launching military attacks – often via proxies – against Persian Gulf shipping, Saudi energy facilities, and Israel. The intercepted missile shipment will do nothing to assuage American and Israeli minds regarding the severity of the threat, which they believe requires, per Netanyahu and Pompeo, more pressure. The prospect of an Iranian capitulation is remote, however. More likely is continued escalation in the nuclear and military spheres.

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