Iranian arms ship Ashdod 248.88.
(photo credit: )
In January 2002, Vice-Admiral Eli "Chiney" Marom was head of Naval Operations and commanded Operation Noah's Ark, the seizure of the Karine A Iranian arms ship that was on its way to supply Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
Marom directed the operation from a command post set up inside an airplane, which flew directly above the ship in the Red Sea. He watched the live feed from the post as naval commandos rappelled down from helicopters onto the small vessel, which they commandeered without firing a single shot.
On Tuesday, Marom, now an admiral and commander of the Israel Navy, oversaw Operation Four Species - the seizure of the largest Iranian arms cache in Israeli history, this time on its way to Hizbullah, and weighing some 500 tons - 10 times the size of the Karine A cache. Contrary to initial navy claims that the boarding of the Francop was somewhat random, the name of the operation - which refers to a custom practiced during Succot - suggests that it was planned for some time.
While the destination for the arms may have changed in the nearly eight years since Karine A, the source of trouble for Israel - Iran - has remained the same.
The battle against Iranian arms shipments to Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas is extremely complicated and involves unprecedented coordination between Israel and its allies, primarily the US.
Israel is also a member of Active Endeavor, a NATO mission based in Naples, where it has a representative sitting in an international command center. There, officers share intelligence information on ships sailing through the Mediterranean Sea which are suspected of involvement in terrorism. The importance of this NATO mission can be seen in Israel's recent request to send a missile ship to participate full-time in the operation.
While the different players in the Middle East have boarded and questioned thousands of ships traversing the Mediterranean in recent years, Israel ultimately only trusts itself when it comes to carrying out complex operations. The operation late on Tuesday night, when naval commandos climbed aboard the Francop cargo ship - flying an Antiguan flag - commandeered it, and brought it to Ashdod after discovering advanced weaponry hidden inside Iranian containers, is a perfect example.
This latest discovery is impressive, but it is just another chapter in the larger covert war that Israel is waging against Iran and its terror proxies throughout the Middle East. Further, it joins a long list of similar special operations aimed at hitting Iran while maintaining Israeli deterrence.
The list of operations can be traced back to the bombing of the Syrian reactor in September 2007 following the Second Lebanon War, a clear message to Iran regarding Israel's determination and military capabilities.
In February 2008, a car bomb - attributed by foreign sources to the Mossad - killed Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyeh in the heart of Damascus. Later that year, Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, Syrian President Bashar Assad's liaison to Hamas and Hizbullah and head of the Syrian nuclear program, was shot dead by a sniper.
In January, on the sidelines of Operation Cast Lead - itself launched with the goal of restoring deterrence vis-Ã -vis Hamas - foreign sources reported that IAF fighters and drones flew 1,000 miles to Sudan to bomb a convoy of trucks smuggling Iranian weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, two months ago, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, US President Barak Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy exposed another Iranian lie and when they announced together the existence of a secret uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, which all Western intelligence agencies believe was to be used to enrich uranium to illegal military levels for a bomb.
The Francop is not the only ship to have been stopped by Israel or its allies. In January, Cyprus stopped the Monchegorsk. Chartered by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISIL), the ship was headed for Syria, and was carrying artillery and tank shells, as well as raw materials to make rockets.
Again, last month, the Hansa India, which left Iran flying a German flag, was caught carrying eight containers filled with bullets and industrial equipment that could be used to manufacture weapons. These containers were also intended for Syria.
Although these seizures are impressive, they are likely only the tip of the iceberg, as Israeli defense officials already openly admit that Hizbullah has some 30,000 to 40,000 rockets.
THE DISCOVERY of the arms cache will not stop Iran or Hizbullah - they are both likely to try to come up with alternative smuggling routes - but it does deal a diplomatic and economic blow to the Iranian regime.
First, the cache - valued at tens of millions of dollars - is now lost. The way it was smuggled inside official Iranian shipping containers - which made history by arriving in Ashdod on Wednesday for the first time since the 1979 revolution - will likely cause difficulties for the regime's shipping company next time it wants to ship even the most innocent cargo.
Foreign shipping companies are now likely to be more cautious before agreeing to carry IRISIL containers, and this will also increase the premium the Iranian company must pay.
Diplomatically, the seizure is extremely embarrassing for the regime, which once again has been caught violating UN Security Council resolutions which forbid it from arms trafficking. This came at a time when the Western world, led by the US, is waiting to hear from Teheran regarding the nuclear proposal offered to it last month in Geneva.
The Foreign Ministry has already instructed diplomats abroad to use the Iranian arms ship to direct international pressure on the Islamic regime. However, the likelihood that Israel will succeed diplomatically due to one captured arms cache is low considering the world's genuine desire to reach a deal with Iran.
The Karine A seizure in 2002 and the recognition that Yasser Arafat was dealing in terror paved the way for Israel's legitimacy to launch Operation Defensive Shield later that year. It is unlikely that the Francop seizure will have the same effect on the international community with regard to Iran.
Nevertheless, the operation comes at a time when Israel, and particularly the IDF, enjoys unprecedented warm ties with foreign militaries, a sign of the expanding front against Iran.
In the last month alone, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi flew to Berlin for talks with his German counterpart, met with the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in Normandy and his French counterpart in Paris, and hosted the Canadian chief of staff in Tel Aviv.
In addition, while Turkey kicked Israel out of the Anatolian Eagle exercise last month, the IAF held joint maneuvers with the Italian air force over Sardinia days earlier. This week, it wrapped up Juniper Cobra, a month of joint missile defense drills - the largest ever - with the US.
The IDF has always enjoyed a close relationship with many different countries, but this tightening of ties comes a time when it is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the UN Human Rights Council-commissioned Goldstone report, which this week made its way to the UN General Assembly.
Senior navy officers made a point of stressing that the significance of the Francop arms cache was not the quality of the weapons - different types of rockets and shells already known to be in Hizbullah hands - but in the quantity.
If Hizbullah already has tens of thousands of rockets, why does it need another shipment, which IDF officers said was enough to support a month-long war against Israel?
The answer is likely a combination of Iran's desire to have a strong Hizbullah that can preoccupy and even paralyze Israel when so desired, coupled with Hizbullah's own concerns that Israel will succeed in wiping out its already significant arsenal, thus requiring an even greater reserve of missiles.
While Hizbullah is believed to be deterred today from attacking - as seen in the more than three years of quiet since the 2006 war - the understanding in the defense establishment is that Iran has solidified its control over the guerrilla group, and can today activate it at will. The two likely scenarios in which Teheran would employ its proxy would be either as a retaliation against an Israeli or American strike on its nuclear facilities, or as an independently initiated war, like in 2006, in an effort to distract Israel and the international community away from its continued nuclear drive.
Either way, the weapons cache is a stark reminder of the continued missile threat on Israel - a threat which, as OC Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin reminded the country on Tuesday with his announcement of an advanced Hamas rocket, continues to grow.â€¢