It took a mere three weeks since the crossing of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal to witness the unfolding of Tehran’s push to shape the strategic environment in the Eastern Mediterranean, using its preferred tool: smuggling arms to client groups. The seizure of several Iranian weapons shipments in a span of a few days highlights Iran’s determination to entangle the new Egyptian regime by ratcheting up tensions in the Israel-Gaza-Egypt triangle. Iran seeks to redefine Egypt’s posture toward Hamas and its military build-up in the hope of making Cairo a de facto member of the Iranian “resistance” camp.
Iran senses an opportunity to push its advantage in the Levant at this critical moment in the Arab World. The Islamic Republic’s ability to project power does not stem from its conventional capabilities. Rather, it derives from its military and financial sponsorship of surrogate movements within Arab societies and states. The ability to manipulate these movements and to instigate conflict provides Iran with avenues to pressure rival Arab states, especially those allied with Washington.
Tehran now has its eyes zeroed in on Egypt, the Arab pillar of the American order in the Eastern Mediterranean for the last 30 years. While potential openings for Iran within the Egyptian political landscape itself remain unclear, the immediate focus for the Iranians is on altering Hamas’ operational environment, namely its ability to procure arms through a secure logistical pipeline, hence the intensive smuggling activity.
The first and most publicized arms shipment was intercepted on Tuesday when the Israeli navy boarded a cargo ship originating from Latakia port in Syria, en route to Alexandria, Egypt, after stops in Turkey and Lebanon. The weapons containers on board, which came from Iran and included manuals in Farsi, were loaded in Syria and were clearly destined for Hamas after being offloaded in Alexandria.
Apparently, the prize weapons system in the shipment was the Nasr anti-ship missile – the Iranian version of the Chinese C-704 – along with its accompanying radar. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the press that this system “could have affected IDF activity along the Gaza Strip coast.” Israeli media was quick to point out the precedent when Hezbollah used another Chinese-designed missile, the C-802, to hit a small Israeli warship during the 2006 war.
It has been clear that the Iranians intend to turn this anti-naval component into a significant element of their clients’ tactical capabilities. Evidence of this can be found in the repeated emphasis by Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, on targeting Israeli seaports and vessels in a future conflict, as well as in Syria’s all-but-declared intention to transfer to Hezbollah the Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles.
Aside from seeking to enhance its influence by upgrading Hamas’ military capacity, Tehran also is likely aiming to diversify and entrench its presence in the Mediterranean by establishing new smuggling routes to its clients in Gaza. To this effect, the episode of the two warships that crossed the Suez three weeks ago comes back under the spotlight. Were the warships carrying the Nasr missiles, and did they offload them in Latakia, where they docked three weeks ago?
This is not to say that Iran is abandoning other routes. The forced landing yesterday of a suspect Iranian aircraft in Turkey – a known Iranian arms smuggling route – suggests Tehran is firing on all cylinders, perhaps testing the tolerance of Turkish authorities just as it aggressively probes the Egyptians’ willingness to maintain their security policy in the post-Mubarak era.
All tactical matters aside, Iran’s strategy is to see a situation on Israel’s southern border analogous to the one that exists to its north. Namely, Iran wants to create a strategic depth and unconstrained logistical rear base in Egypt for Hamas that functions in the same way Syria does for Iran’s premier military arm, Hezbollah.
The Islamic Republic tried, and failed, to bring about this outcome in 2008-09 during the Gaza war, the prime purpose of which was to implicate Egypt in the conflict, sabotaging its peace treaty with Israel, and thereby shaking its position in the pro-American camp.
To achieve this end of forcing Egypt’s hand, the Iranians are pulling all their tricks, including stepping up action on their old smuggling route via the Sudan. Just last week, it was reported that the Egyptian military attacked a convoy carrying arms on the border with Sudan. However, Egypt’s action against the convoy suggests that Iran’s desires may not be materializing just yet.
Still, there is no denying Iran’s power play. Sensing a moment of American confusion and Arab turmoil, Tehran is pressing ahead, full throttle, to maximize gains. And as Iran forcefully attempts to shape Egypt’s strategic orientation, expect the Gaza flashpoint to continue to heat up.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published at NOW Lebanon.