February 2, 2013 - 10:00 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta accused Iran of an intensified campaign to destabilize the Middle East by smuggling anti-aircraft weapons to militant allies, according to Reuters.
"There is no question when you start passing MANPADS around, that becomes a threat, not just to military aircraft but to civilian aircraft," Panetta told The Wall Street Journal in an interview on Friday, Feb 1.
"That is an escalation," he said.
MANPADS are shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Western officials have worried about the spread of such weapons and the risk they pose to airline passengers as well as to military helicopters and jets.
Yemeni forces intercepted a ship on January 23 carrying a large cache of weapons - including surface-to-air missiles - that U.S. officials suspect were being smuggled from Iran and destined for Yemeni insurgents.
"It is one of the first times we have seen it," Panetta said, referring to the seizure of MANPADS.
Yemen's government said the arms intercepted aboard the ship off the country's coast also included military-grade explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and bomb-making equipment. Iran denies any interference in Yemen's affairs.
Panetta said the United States was stepping up efforts to counter the Iranian threat, and was leading a multinational exercise in the United Arab Emirates through Thursday to improve the interdiction of Iranian arms and other weapons.
He called the exercise critical to building up Arab capabilities to help halt Iranian arms transfers, including the smuggling of MANPADS.
U.S. officials have said the anti-aircraft weapons intercepted on January 23 likely were headed to northern Yemen's Houthi separatists, who are fighting the U.S.-backed government in Sanaa and have also clashed with Saudi forces.