Analysis: Israel’s shadow war against Iran

The seizure of the 'Victoria' cargo ship is just another chapter in the larger covert war that Israel is waging against Iran.

Victoria Raid 311 (photo credit: IDF)
Victoria Raid 311
(photo credit: IDF)
Israel waged war against Iran on Tuesday. No Iranians were present and not a single shot was fired, but make no mistake – the seizure of the Victoria cargo ship is part of Israel’s battle against Iran, one that is fought in the shadows and sometimes in the most unlikely places.
When the commandos from the navy’s Flotilla 13 approached the ship under cover of darkness late Monday night, they still did not know what to expect. Only as they made their final approach toward the ship, some 320 km. west of Israel, did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu give his final approval to board the vessel.
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In such cases, the risk is huge, and for this reason the Foreign Ministry was on standby with officials ready to contact Germany and Liberia. A German company owns the ship, and it was flying a Liberian flag.
After contacting the captain of the ship by radio, the commandos climbed aboard and, encountering no resistance, began a brief search of the cargo. They went to the “suspicious” containers, the ones that were loaded at the Syrian port of Latakia and were slated to be unloaded at the Egyptian port of Alexandria, according to the cargo manifest.
The commandos found the containers fitted with heavy locks, unusual for shipments of lentils and cotton. Behind a row of sacks, they found what they were looking for: crates of mortar shells, and then the real prize – the C-704 anti-ship missiles.
The seizure of the Victoria was not impressive for the quantity of arms found – the Francop cargo ship captured by Israel in late 2009 was carrying 10 times more weaponry – but for the quality.
The C-704 is an anti-ship missile made in China and used by Iran, which calls it the Nasr. Like surface-to-air missiles, the C-704 is the type of weapon that Israel fears could shift the balance of power in the region and undermine its operational freedom.
But while the discovery is impressive and was the result of major intelligence and operational efforts, it is just another chapter in the larger covert war that Israel is waging against Iran and its terror proxies throughout the Middle East, and joins a long list of similar special operations that have taken place in recent years.
The battle against Iranian arms shipments to Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas is extremely complicated and involves unprecedented coordination between Israel and its allies, primarily the United States.
Israel boards dozens of ships annually, and hundreds more are questioned by radio at sea. In the case of the Victoria, Israel had intelligence that the ship might be carrying weaponry, but there is never certainty until the ship is boarded and the weapons are found. One senior official described the mood in the navy command center as being so tense that a knife could have cut through the air.
For Iran and Hamas, the seizure of the Victoria is a major blow. But it will not stop Iran from trying other ways to get advanced weaponry to its proxies, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. In many cases, Iran has succeeded.
In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, Hamas did not have rockets that could hit Tel Aviv. Today it does.
The route that the Victoria took was of particular interest for the navy. In the past, a number of ships were tracked as they sailed through the Red Sea and unloaded weaponry in Sudan or Eritrea, which made its way by land up to the Egyptian-Gaza border. In this case, the ship was loaded in Syria, then sailed north to Turkey and then back south again to Egypt.
This route led intelligence officials in Israel to believe that the stopover at the Turkish port of Mersin was a ploy to draw attention away from the ship.
The decision to transfer the weaponry directly to Egypt could mean that Iran is encountering difficulty in the traditional land route through Egypt. This could have to do with Israeli efforts to stop the shipments, but the Egyptians are also believed to be making a greater effort to stop arms convoys from crossing into the country from its southern border with Sudan. A few days ago, the Egyptian military attacked such a convoy with artillery shells, preventing it from entering the country.