The recent U.S. seizure of suspected Iranian guided missile parts headed to rebels in Yemen highlights Iran's continued far-reaching involvement in the war-torn country, experts say.
U.S. officials said earlier this month that a U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard boarding team seized a small boat in the northern Arabian Sea that was carrying sophisticated weapons to Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.
Iran has not commented on the seizure, but the country has in the past denied sending weapons to Houthi rebels.
Some experts believe the incident shows Iran's escalating efforts to defy international obligations and to destabilize Yemen and the broader region.
"This is one additional piece of evidence that Iran continues to violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions in exporting arms, which it's not allowed to do," said James Phillips, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, in a VOA Persian interview.
A U.N. resolution adopted in 2007 prohibits Iran from supplying and exporting weapons outside the country unless approved by the Security Council. Another U.N. resolution, adopted in 2015, bans the supply of weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Since the war in Yemen began in 2015, Iran has been backing Houthi rebels who control much of northern Yemen. Houthis have been fighting forces loyal to the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Houthis reportedly have been using parts smuggled from Iran to build their advanced arsenal. Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was designated a terrorist organization by the Trump administration earlier this year, has been accused of providing weapons and expertise to Houthi rebels.
Substantial amount of weapons
Although the size of the recently seized shipment remains unclear, experts charge that over the years, Iran has delivered a substantial amount of weaponry to its Houthi allies in response to what Tehran sees as growing Saudi Arabian influence in the country.
"The weapon cache discovered in that yacht is only a small example of what IRGC Quds Force is sending to Yemen to be used by Houthi rebels," said Babak Taghvaei, a Malta-based military analyst with knowledge of Iran's involvement in regional conflicts, including the one in Yemen.
He told VOA that a Saudi-led coalition had on several occasions seized Iranian-made weapons that were intended for the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia and several Arab countries have been engaged in the Yemeni war since its inception, with the aim of removing Houthi rebels. The conflict therefore is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
While the recent seizure marked the first time such sophisticated components had been taken en route to Yemen, U.S. warships have intercepted and seized Iranian arms likely bound for Houthi fighters many times in recent years.
"The seizure of these weapons will help the U.S. and its allies to find out about technology and material used for production of these weapons, and how to protect their forces from their danger," analyst Taghvaei said.
Additional US forces?
Despite growing tensions between Tehran and Washington, experts rule out the likelihood of any direct confrontation between the two sides in the Persian Gulf region.
However, Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, told VOA Persian that he thought the U.S. could increase its military presence in the Middle East, for two purposes.
"The first is to reassure nervous partners such as Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is serious in protecting their territory and also their key economic assets, such as oil pipelines," he said.
"The second purpose is to send a signal to Iran that if the U.S. decides that it is time to escalate against Iran and [its] malign activities in the broader Middle East, the U.S. has the muscle capable to do it," Heras added.
In recent months, the U.S. has beefed up its military presence in the region, deploying additional troops, ships, aircraft and other military supplies in response to what U.S. officials say is a growing threat from Iran.
‘Spoiler’ in Yemen
Some experts also say the recent seizure is yet more evidence that Iran acts as a "spoiler" in Yemen, especially since Saudi Arabia reportedly has been engaged in informal talks with the Houthis about a potential cease-fire.
"Riyadh is seeking border security as a part of this process, and the continued Iranian arming of the Houthis — in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions — is Tehran's way of putting its thumb on the scale," said Jason Brodsky, an Iran expert based in Washington.
"In the end, this seized cache is just another reminder of Iran's power projection throughout the region," he told VOA.
VOA Persian Service reporter Katherine Ahn contributed to this story.