Seized Chinese weapons raise concerns about Iran

  • Article by: ROBERT F. WORTH and C.J. CHIVERS
  • New York Times
  • March 2, 2013 - 7:24 PM

An Iranian dhow seized off the Yemeni coast was carrying sophisticated Chinese anti-aircraft missiles, a development that could signal an escalation of Iran’s support to its Middle Eastern proxies, alarming other countries in the region and renewing a diplomatic challenge to the United States.

Among the items aboard the dhow, according to a review of factory markings on weapons and their packing crates, were 10 Chinese heat-seeking anti-aircraft missi iles, most of them manufactured in 2005.

The missiles were labeled QW-1M and bore stencils suggesting that they had been assembled at a factory represented by the state-owned China National Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp., sanctioned by the United States for transfers of missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.

The Chinese missiles were part of a larger shipment interdicted by U.S. and Yemeni forces in January, which U.S. and Yemeni officials say was intended for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. But the presence of the missiles in the seized contraband complicates an already politically delicate case.

The shipment has raised concerns in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen because the weapons pose escalated risks to civilian and military aircraft alike.

And it has presented the Obama administration with a fresh example of Iran’s apparent transfer of modern missiles from China to insurgents in the larger regional contest between Sunni-led and Shiite-led states, in which the U.S. military has often been entwined.

The United States has previously accused Iran, a Shiite-led theocracy, of sending weapons to the Houthis, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, is considered the leading Sunni power in the region. Both sides have aided and equipped groups or governments they deem aligned with their interests, helping to fuel violence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Sudan and elsewhere.

Iran has rejected the allegations as “baseless and absurd.” Neither the Iranian government nor the Chinese firm that markets QW missiles answered written requests for comment.

The government of Yemen has asked the United Nations to investigate the shipment and report the findings to the Security Council. Yemeni news media reported that U.N. experts were in Yemen last week.

Analysis of the weapons’ markings and origins was based on photographs taken when Yemeni officials briefly displayed the weapons to ­journalists.

Concerns over sophisticated Chinese missiles reaching Iran’s proxies have considerable regional history. They are part of both the larger worries over antiaircraft weapons set loose by conflicts across the Middle East in the past decade and the lingering frustration in Washington over China’s ­military aid to Iran.

A U.S. official called the shipment “deeply disturbing” and noted it “clearly appeared to violate” Security Council resolutions prohibiting Iran from exporting arms.

Two independent arms-trafficking researchers who have reviewed photographs and written a summary of the markings on the missiles and crates said the weapons appeared to be of Chinese origin.

Matthew Schroeder, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington and the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, noted that this was the first time to his knowledge that the QW-1M had left state control. “If so, and these missiles were indeed bound for insurgents, this shipment is extremely worrisome, both from a regional security and a global counterterrorism perspective,” he said.

Unlike many older shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles seen in insurgent hands around the world, the QW-1M is believed by analysts to have a seeker head more resistant to countermeasures intended to deceive it.

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