Iran appears to have sent deadly drones to its allies in Yemen as Middle East tensions heat up across the Red Sea, another major flashpoint where rival forces operate, Newsweek has learned.
Imagery seen by Newsweek and confirmed by an expert who follows Iranian activities in the region indicate the presence of Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munitions, also called "suicide drones," deployed to the northern Yemeni province of Al-Jawf, an area of the country controlled by the Ansar Allah, or Houthi, Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebel movement.
"The Iranians have delivered to their Houthi proxies in Yemen advanced UAVs," the expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Newsweek. "They are forward deploying or prepositioning these drones in order to stage an attack against a variety of targets they have within range."
The unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are weapons assessed to have an effective range of 2,000 to 2,200 kilometers, or roughly 1,240 to 1,370 miles, drawing a massive radius across the region in which a potential attack is suspected to be in the works.
"What they're trying to achieve is plausible deniability," the expert said, "as in being able to strike either a U.S., Saudi, Gulf, or Israeli target and then having the strike traced back to Yemen, and hoping for deniably against any kind of retribution."
Ansar Allah dismissed the intelligence when reached for comment.
"Whoever gave you that information is an ass hahahahahahaha," Ansar Allah spokesperson Mohammed Abdul Salam told Newsweek.
Newsweek could not independently verify the intelligence or Ansar Allah's denial.
The latest developments come amid an apparent spike in Red Sea activity, where Iran's top general, Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, revealed Wednesday he was to send warships to patrol.
"We are once again in the region of the Red Sea, where the Islamic Republic's merchant vessels have faced some limited aggression in recent times," Bagheri said. "We will deploy our naval patrol and establish full security for our oil and commercial fleet in that sea."
Unveiling two new warships, the Zereh missile-launcher and Makran helicopter carrier, Bagheri proclaimed that Iranian forces would not allow their foes to flex their muscles in the face of the Islamic Republic. His remarks coincided with naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman, which follow last week's drone drills involving new and advanced UAV technology, including loitering munitions.
Vessels from other nations have also been targeted in the Red Sea in recent years, with the latest reportedly being an unidentified ship struck Christmas Day by a sea mine suspected to have been planted by Ansar Allah, according to Saudi Arabia's Al Arabiya. Dec. 25 also happens to be the date of the images seen by Newsweek apparently showing the Shahed-136 deployed to Yemen.
Saudi vessels have been involved in other alleged acts of sabotage blamed on Iran in the Gulf of Oman, which feeds into the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important maritime oil chokepoint. Not far from the shores of the Persian Gulf, two Saudi oil sites in Abqaiq were attacked in a September 2019 strike claimed by Ansar Allah but blamed on Tehran by Riyadh, Washington and several other governments.
Among the munitions Saudi Arabia said were employed in the operation was the Shahed-131, a predecessor of the more advanced Shahed-136.
Also leading the list of critical oil transit routes are the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb, which mark the only entrances to the Red Sea, a large Indian Ocean inlet between Asia's Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. In addition to Yemen, the Red Sea is surrounded by Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, with Israel and Jordan also having access via the Gulf of Aqaba.
It was on the coast of this narrow waterway that Israel has recently moved Iron Dome and Patriot missile defense batteries to the Red Sea southern resort city of Eilat, according to footage published by the Associated Press. Israel has also launched a campaign of airstrikes in Syria, including a particularly intense set reported Wednesday, targeting suspected Iran-backed forces accused of setting up forward bases and transporting munitions as part of a network of influence stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Access to the Red Sea from the Mediterranean is granted by Egypt's Suez Canal, through which an Israeli submarine reportedly sailed last month in a rare move accompanying tense developments across the Middle East.
Around this same time, the U.S. military sailed a submarine of its own along with a pair of warships through the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. 5th Fleet publicly announced the transit of nuclear-powered Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia alongside Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers USS Port Royal and USS Philippine Sea, and the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier's mission in the Middle East was extended.
Reached for comment, the Pentagon would not comment directly on Newsweek's findings but shared its assessment of Iran's role in the Middle East.
"We won't comment on intelligence reporting or open-source speculation but what remains a concern is Iran's destabilizing activities across the region," spokesperson Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Anton Semelroth said.
Washington and Tehran support opposing political and military forces across the region, viewing one another's presence as malign and even terroristic. In Yemen, this rivalry has helped to prolong a deadly conflict exacerbated by widespread disease and famine, leaving upwards of 250,000 dead and no clear resolution despite both sides pleading for an end to the fighting.
"Regarding Yemen specifically, the U.S. is committed to a negotiated, UN-led political settlement to end the civil war and the humanitarian crisis, which we believe will bring greater peace and stability throughout the Arabian Peninsula," Semelroth told Newsweek.
President Donald Trump's administration has adopted a hardline position against the Islamic Republic, instituting a "maximum pressure" campaign that abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal and strangled the Iranian economy by crippling its foreign trade. With the U.S. leader's term set to end amid unprecedented political unrest at home, uncertainty has fallen over the Persian Gulf and its peripheries before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week and is widely expected to reinstate U.S. participation in the nuclear agreement.
Concerns of a potential escalation were also elevated as a result of the recent anniversary of the U.S. killing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Iranian officials and their regional allies have vowed to avenge his death alongside a top partner Iraqi paramilitary official at Baghdad International Airport last year.
Soleimani was instrumental in building Iranian links to foreign militias such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces and Yemen's Ansar Allah, which has been engaged in a civil war with a Saudi-led coalition for nearly five years. Both Ansar Allah and Iran deny any official military ties to one another.
But the group was designated a terrorist organization by the Trump administration on Monday, a measure that frustrated international aid groups who have been attempting to deliver assistance to a country currently undergoing what the U.N. has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to Ansar Allah in a statement as "a deadly Iran-backed militia group" guilty of "terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping."
Ansar Allah-led administration Deputy Information Secretary Nasreddin Amer told Newsweek at the time the move was "a decision issued by an administration lacking sensibility, internally and externally."
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh also took note of the humanitarian implications, and criticized the longstanding U.S. support for a Saudi-led air campaign that has drawn accusations of human rights violations.
"This is a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to complete its destructive role in line with the imposed and shameful war on Yemen," Khatibzadeh said, according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, arguing that "the U.S. has been the main sponsor of the crimes committee by the Saudi-led coalition and has spared no financial and arms assistance in this regard."
The State Department under Trump, who vetoed congressional efforts to halt U.S. military aid in support of the Saudi-led war effort, has "spared no effort to fan the flames of war in Yemen, make the war continue and block every single path to the political settlement of the crisis," he added.
Iranian officials have criticized a number of other high-profile, controversial foreign policy moves announced by Pompeo in the final days of the Trump administration. These include last Thursday's designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and Tuesday's attempt to link Iran to Sunni Islamist militant group Al-Qaeda, which is also active in Yemen as a rival to Ansar Allah and, at times, the internationally-recognized government-in-exile, though the latter faction and the Saudi-led coalition supporting it been accused of collaboration with the jihadis.
"These preposterous, false accusations are nothing new, and only reinforce the fact that the Trump administration is desperately continuing their failed policy of Iran-bashing," Iranian permanent mission to the United Nations spokesperson Alireza Miryousefi told Newsweek shortly after Pompeo's speech.
This article has been updated to include statements from U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Anton Semelroth and Ansar Allah spokesperson Mohammed Abdul Salam.