White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday that the US has identified an uptick in cooperation between Iran and Russia against Israel.
“Our information further indicates that [the] Wagner [Group], at the direction of the Russian government, was preparing to provide an air defense capability to either Hezbollah or Iran,” Kirby told reporters during a briefing.
The Wall Street Journal, quoting unidentified US officials, said earlier this month that the Wagner Group was preparing to supply the Pantsir-S1, a Russian self-propelled anti-aircraft gun and missile system known as SA-22 by NATO.
Wagner, which is funded by the Kremlin, has been brought back into line after a failed mutiny in June that presented the biggest threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade rule.
“We are certainly prepared to use our counterterrorism sanctions authorities against Russian individuals or entities that might make these destabilizing transfers,” Kirby said.
He added that Iran was “considering providing Russia with ballistic missiles now for use in Ukraine in return for that support.”
Washington has been warning of deepening military relations between Moscow and Tehran — a burgeoning relationship that Kirby described as “obviously harmful to Ukraine, certainly harmful to Iran’s neighbors, quite frankly harmful to the international community.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Choigou paid an official visit to Iran in September, described as an “important step” for military cooperation between the allies. Both countries are subject to international trade sanctions and have forged close ties in a number of sectors.
Kirby also said that the US is considering re-designating the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen as a terror organization following the group’s hijacking of an Israeli-linked ship in the Red Sea and the series of missile attacks it has launched at Israel since the outbreak of the war in Gaza.
US President Joe Biden removed the Houthis’ terror designation shortly after entering the White House amid pressure from rights groups who said it was inhibiting efforts to supply aid to civilians in Yemen.
Discussing the Houthis, Kirby told reporters Tuesday that “in light of… the piracy of a ship in international waters, we have begun a review of potential terrorist designations and we’ll be considering other options together with our allies and partners as well.”
The Bahamas-flagged, British-owned Galaxy Leader is operated by a Japanese firm but has links to Israeli businessman Abraham “Rami” Ungar.
Kirby called on the rebels to “release that ship immediately — as well as the crew — and unconditionally.”
The Houthis have declared themselves part of the “axis of resistance” of Iran’s allies and proxies, including Hezbollah and Hamas, and have also launched a series of drones and missiles toward Israel.