Cargo containers in transit: the Iranian threat

Iran has been transferring large quantities of armaments to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

March 6, 2012 22:59
3 minute read.
Iranian cargo ship

Iranian cargo ship 390. (photo credit: Reuters)


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In recent years, Iran has been transferring large quantities of armaments, by various means, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. While United Nations Security Council resolutions 1835, 1803, 1747 and 1737 strictly forbid Iran to export or trade any form of weaponry, the Islamic Republic has found an effective way to circumvent these restrictions. It accomplishes this is by using shipping containers which reach their final destination via intermediate ports.

In November 2009, 36 containers full of weapons were loaded at an Iranian port onto a ship bound for Egypt. There the containers were transferred, without any inspection or screening, to the cargo vessel Francop, a German-owned vessel leased at the time to a Cypriot freight delivery company and Antiguan-flagged. The Francop was to dock at a second intermediate port in Cyprus on its way to Syria, its final destination. From Syria the weapons were intended to be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Instead, the ship was intercepted by Israeli naval forces before arriving in Cyprus.

According to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the most critical component of global trade today is transportation of goods by container through seaports around the world. Therefore, a container explosion can have an enormous negative impact not only in terms of loss of life and damage to the port and its surrounding areas, but also to the host nation’s economy as a whole.

Such an incident occurred on July 2011 in Cyprus, where the explosion of confiscated containers of gunpowder from Iran killed the commander of the Cypriot navy and 11 others, wounding dozens and causing severe damage to surrounding infrastructure. The incident had significant political ramifications: the defense minister and the country’s top military official resigned.

Further incidents like this could paralyze the global economy and severely undermine freedom of movement (as has occurred in the past with air travel).

Containers in transit are almost never screened for weapons or other illegal goods without prior intelligence for two main reasons. The first has to with the fact that since these containers do not officially enter the country, there is no reason for the customs agencies – which are usually in charge of screening incoming containers from abroad – to inspect them.

The second reason is that screening containers costs money. This cost will almost certainly be partially if not fully imposed on the shipper, thus increasing overall shipment cost. A shipper might then decide to ship his containers via a different intermediate that charges less money.

The way to combat such illegal activity is to subject containers shipped by states like Iran that have been caught undermining the system by falsifying documents and smuggling weapons to terrorist organizations to a 100 percent inspection regime. This would not only increase port safety and security, but would also deny Iran a way to transfer weapons to terrorist organizations. The inspection costs would be borne by Iran.

The only way such a system can be effective is if the entire international community legally commits itself to apply such an inspection regime on all incoming “transit containers” from Iran. Otherwise, Iran will bypass the inspections by shipping its containers through intermediate ports which do not use the aforementioned 100% inspection regime.

This measure will help guarantee that containers loaded with weapons which were shipped from Iran to terrorist organizations will be caught – regardless of prior intelligence – due to the comprehensive inspection regime at intermediate ports.

Nitzan Nuriel is the former head of the Prime Minister Office’s Counter-Terrorism bureau.

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