The US military is considering sending Ukraine thousands of confiscated weapons and more than a million rounds of ammunition once intended for Iran-backed militants in Yemen, an unprecedented move that would help Kiev fight Russian forces, US said – and European officials.
US officials said they intend to send Ukraine more than 5,000 assault rifles, 1.6 million rounds of small arms ammunition, a small number of anti-tank missiles and more than 7,000 proximity fuses seized off the Yemeni coast from smugglers in recent months, for the they were suspected of working in Iran.
The unusual move would give America and its allies a fresh supply of firepower to tap as they struggle to meet Ukraine’s military support needs as the war with Russia enters its second year.
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The Ukrainian embassy in Washington, DC did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The National Security Council declined to comment on the matter.
America and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies met in Brussels this week to discuss new ways to speed up the flow of arms to Ukraine and the supply shortages caused by the war.
“The war in Ukraine consumes an enormous amount of ammunition and depletes the stocks of the Allies,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday, on the eve of the meeting. “The current rate of ammunition expenditure of Ukraine is several times higher than our current production rate. That puts pressure on our defense industry.”
The US has shipped more than 100 million rounds of small arms ammunition to Ukraine as of this week, according to the Pentagon.
The challenge for the Biden administration is to find a legal justification for taking guns out of one conflict and passing them on to another. The UN arms embargo requires the US and its allies to destroy, store or dispose of seized weapons. According to US officials, lawyers for the Biden administration have checked whether the resolution gives them leeway to transfer the weapons to Ukraine.
Proponents of the idea said President Biden may be able to resolve the legal issue by drafting an executive order or working with Congress to authorize the US to seize the guns under civil forfeiture authorities and ship them to Ukraine send.
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There is precedent for the US using foreclosure laws to confiscate Iranian weapons. The Justice Department used such legislation in 2020 to seize control of two shipments of seized weapons, including anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles and cruise missile parts.
Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, and a proponent of the idea, said there was bipartisan support for the concept in Washington.
“This seems like a very easy thing for the White House and Congress to figure out and resolve,” he said. “I think the President could be pushing for an open door here.”
A spokeswoman for the Albanian United Nations mission, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the UN Security Council, declined to comment. Iranian officials in New York and Tehran did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Nasr al-Din Amir, the Houthi Deputy Minister of Information, derided the US idea as ineffective.
“What change can this bring to the war?” he said of the idea of sending the arms to Ukraine. “They sent much heavier weapons.”
The guns and ammunition were seized by the US and France in recent months as part of a global effort mostly focused on stopping Iran from smuggling arms into Yemen. Tehran’s Houthi allies are waging an eight-year war against the Saudi-backed government, which was ousted from the capital in 2014.
Typically, the weapons are seized and destroyed by the US and its allies to enforce a United Nations arms embargo on Yemen. However, US officials said that global efforts to supply arms to Ukraine had sparked a discussion about shipping the confiscated military supplies to Kiev.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a news conference in Brussels.
Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
US military officials began seriously considering the idea late last year after the US Navy seized a million rounds of ammunition aboard a fishing boat sailing from Iran to Yemen, the officials said. A few weeks later, the American military seized more than 2,000 AK-47s from a small fishing boat in the Gulf of Oman. In mid-January, French forces found 3,000 assault rifles, nearly 600,000 shells and more than 20 anti-tank missiles aboard another fishing boat in the Gulf of Oman.
While the amount of weapons seized is unlikely to significantly hamper the war effort, sending the weapons destined for Iran-backed forces in Yemen to the Kiev government would allow America to turn the tables on Tehran, which Russia has by hundreds of which has supplied so-called suicide drones that have been used to attack civilians in Ukraine, US officials said.
It would also open the door for the US to re-route other types of weapons seized off the Yemeni coast if needed by Kiev.
“It’s a message to take weapons that are destined to arm Iran’s proxies and turn them around to achieve our priorities in Ukraine, where Iran is supplying arms to Russia,” a US official said.
The United States and its allies have accused Iran of providing military aid to Houthi fighters in Yemen for years. Iran, which openly politically supports the Houthi forces, denies supplying arms in violation of the UN arms embargo.
The United Nations says Iran is the most likely source of missiles, drones, missiles and small arms that helped the Houthis hold their own in the eight-year war against Saudi-backed Yemeni forces.
Houthi forces have repeatedly fired rockets and launched drones from Yemen, targeting the capitals of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have provided military support to the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
The war caused what the UN calls one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with 23 million people in Yemen – almost three-quarters of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance.
Last April, the UN helped negotiate a ceasefire in Yemen to support political talks to end the war. However, diplomatic efforts to end the conflict remain stalled. The US accuses Iran of using the doldrums to try to arm Houthi fighters.
Ukrainian soldiers in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Photo: Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu/Getty Images
– Aresu Eqbali in Tehran and Saleh Al-Batati in London contributed to this article.
Write to Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected], Gordon Lubold at [email protected], and Benoit Faucon at [email protected]
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