francop missile ship 248 88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The seizure by Israeli forces of an Iranian-commissioned arms smuggling ship on its way to Syria and/or Hizbullah in Lebanon offers a further glimpse into the daily, silent war under way between Israel and the Iranian-led regional bloc.
It is evidence of Iran's ongoing strategy of arming its Islamist clients to Israel's north and south.
The strength of these forces on the ground constitutes an important asset for the Iranian regime. Iranian aid and weaponry is not doled out for its recipients to use at will. Iran's investment is likely to be called in at a moment of the Iranian regime's choosing - most likely in the event of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran makes use of all its regional assets and allies in its effort to supply arms to Hamas and Hizbullah. These two organizations play a vital role in Iran's strategy for regional hegemony.
They currently maintain the two "hot" fronts in the Israeli-Arab conflict (which might today more accurately be referred to as the "Israel-Islamist" conflict). So maintaining the smooth flow of supplies is a strategic priority of the first order for Teheran.
In January, an Israeli bombing of an arms convoy in Sudan laid bare an arms trail leading from Iran to Sudan, across Egypt, across Sinai, and finishing in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The Sudan-Sinai-Gaza part of the trail was created and administered by Hizbullah men, acting on behalf of their Iranian patron. In April, an unidentified warship sank an Iranian vessel carrying arms to the Gaza Strip, as it sought to dock in Sudan.
This latest seizure of the arms ship bound for Syria lays bare a similar collective effort by Iran's allies to supply the parallel northern front - apparently along a similar route. The latest indications are that the ship docked first in Yemen, then in Sudan, before making its way to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.
But the destination of the arms ship - either a Syrian or a Lebanese port, according to sources - points to one of the essential differences in the two fronts maintained by Iran against Israel.
Hamas in Gaza is boxed in and lacks strategic depth. Egypt to its south is aligned with the pro-western bloc in the region, and as such is a partner (sometimes even an energetic partner) in Israeli efforts to stem the flow of weaponry to Gaza.
Syria, however, is a card-carrying member of the pro-Iranian regional bloc. The porousness of Lebanon's eastern border with Syria is a vital asset for Hizbullah. And the Shi'ite Islamist movement has complete freedom of operation on Lebanese soil.
UN Resolution 1701 tasks UN forces in Lebanon with preventing the Syrian supply of arms across the border to Hizbullah. But no serious effort has been made to implement this clause.
Journalists working in Lebanon are aware that the crossings at the eastern border are off limits, and few attempt to report events there. Even UN investigators themselves concur that since August 2006, a steady supply of Iranian and Syrian arms has been making its way across Lebanon's eastern border to the Hizbullah forces in the south of the country.
It may be assumed that this was the intended final destination for the arms found Tuesday night on the ship bearing the Antiguan flag.
The events of the last 18 months in Lebanon have indicated that Hizbullah is the de facto ruler of that country - in the simple sense of being the force that can impose its will on matters it considers vital without consulting with other elements.
Six months after the much-vaunted election victory of the pro-western March 14 movement, Lebanon still has no government in sight. In the meantime, the parallel pro-Iranian Hizbullah state pursues its policies unhindered.
If the ship turns out to have been bound for a Lebanese port - this will offer the latest indication of just how free Hizbullah's hand in Lebanon now is.
The apprehending of the arms ship represents a propaganda coup for Israel, which may help it draw attention to the reality of an ongoing Iranian effort to amass powerful proxy military forces to Israel's south and north.
However, it us unlikely to put a major dent in Iranian efforts to rearm Hizbullah. The evidence suggests that the process of replenishing the large-scale destruction suffered by Hizbullah in 2006 has been mostly trouble-free and has largely been completed. Hizbullah is thought by Israel to now possess around 80,000 rockets and missiles directed at the Jewish state.
The frenetic armament efforts undertaken by Iran and its clients do not mean that conflict is necessarily imminent. The Iranians were displeased at Hizbullah's provocation that led to the war of 2006. The war destroyed costly resources and undid intensive Iranian efforts.
Rather, weaponry is making its way to south Lebanon and Gaza, via Syria, Sinai and the Mediterranean, to place the Israeli population within the range of Iranian-directed short and medium range missiles. The implicit threat is that these assets would be activated should Israel (or anyone else) dare to move against the Iranian nuclear program.
Israelis may take justified pride in its navy's significant achievement in stopping the arms ship bound for Syria. But the result of the larger contest of which the ship was a part, however, still lies ahead.
The writer is senior research fellow at Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.