The US will transfer thousands of seized Iranian weapons and rounds of ammunition to Ukraine, in a move that could help to alleviate some of the critical shortages facing the Ukrainian military as it awaits more money and equipment from the US and its allies, US officials said.
US Central Command has already transferred over one million rounds of seized Iranian ammunition to the Ukrainian armed forces, it announced on Wednesday. The transfer was conducted on Monday, CENTCOM said in a press release.
“The government obtained ownership of these munitions on July 20, 2023, through the Department of Justice’s civil forfeiture claims against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” the statement says.
The Justice Department announced in March that it was seeking the forfeiture of one million rounds of Iranian ammunition, thousands of proximity fuses for rocket-propelled grenades, and thousands of pounds of propellant for rocket-propelled grenades that the Navy seized from Iran as it was in transit to Yemen.
“These munitions were originally seized by U.S. Central Command naval forces from the transiting stateless dhow MARWAN 1, Dec. 9, 2022. The munitions were being transferred from the IRGC to the Houthis in Yemen in violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216,” the statement says.
The Biden administration has for months been weighing how to legally send the seized weapons, which are stored in CENTCOM facilities across the Middle East, to the Ukrainians.
Over the past year, the US Navy has seized thousands of Iranian assault rifles and more than one million rounds of ammunition from vessels used by Iran to ship weapons to Yemen. The seizures, frequently carried out with regional partner forces, target small stateless vessels on routes historically used to smuggle weapons to the Houthis in Yemen.
In mid-January, the US assisted French forces in the seizure of 3,000 assault rifles headed from Iran to Yemen, as well as 23 anti-tank guided missiles. Following the seizure, the US took custody of the confiscated weapons.
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That illegal weapons interdiction capped a two month period in which the US and its partners seized a total of 5,000 weapons and 1.6 million rounds of ammunition, according to Central Command.
Justice Department and defense officials have been working together to find a legal pathway to send the weapons to Ukraine, officials said, and one way is through the US’ civil forfeiture authorities.
The Justice Department has filed at least two forfeiture complaints against seized Iranian ammunition and weapons this year. Apart from the announcement in March, DOJ announced in July that that it was seeking the forfeiture of “over 9,000 rifles, 284 machine guns, approximately 194 rocket launchers, over 70 anti-tank guided missiles, and over 700,000 rounds of ammunition” seized from Iran by the US Navy.
“At the end of the day, Ukraine needs various supplies for the war effort, and while this isn’t a solution to all of Ukraine’s military needs, it will provide critical support,” said Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security who pushed the US to send the seized Iranian weapons to Ukraine in an op-ed in February.
Lord added that the move could also have implications for Iran’s relationship with Russia.
“For over a year, Iranian UAVs in the hands of the Russian military have been used to attack and murder Ukrainian civilians,” Lord said. “There is poetic justice in Ukraine utilizing seized Iranian weapons to defend its people against Russia’s criminal invasion and abuses. Additionally, this policy may put greater pressure on the burgeoning relationship between Moscow and Tehran.”
The decision could drive a wedge between Iran and Russia, which have formed a de facto defense partnership over the last several months, with Iran supplying Russia with drones for its war in Ukraine and Russia cooperating with Iran on missile and air defense production.