Can the Iranian Grad smuggling route be stopped?

Mideast experts: If we leave it up to Egypt, it won't solve the problem.

grad missile asheklon 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
grad missile asheklon 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Retrace the steps of a Grad rocket, and they will take you across the globe. Indeed, if one were to follow the trail of one of Hamas's more advanced projectiles - say, from a field in southern Israel, back to its point of origin - the Gaza Strip would be but one stop on a journey that might span Beijing to Beersheba, arms control experts say. Grad rockets are assembled all over the world, with Iran at the helm supplying them to the Islamists in Gaza. With the vast African continent home to a number of governments that are sympathetic to the jihadist cause, combating the proliferation of these missiles could prove an exceedingly difficult task. "While the original Grad rockets were designed in the former Soviet Union, today they're made in a number of countries around the world - including the former Soviet satellite countries, North Korea, Syria, Iran and China," said Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and an expert on arms control. "But the rockets that are coming into Gaza and being fired at Israel were built in either China or Iran, and Iran is procuring and shipping them here, through various channels," he said. Those channels, according to Brom, could include the use of Iranian ships to bring the missiles to ports along the Egyptian coast, or through North African countries like Sudan or Somalia. Either way, Brom said, they are then smuggled into Sinai and through the network of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border - a network that was extensive before Operation Cast Lead began. While those tunnels have been severely damaged by Israel Air Force strikes, many believe they will be easy to repair, and the incentive to do so will be high, given the large amount of commerce they generate on both sides of the border. Therefore, the question remains as to how the smuggling of Grads and other advanced rockets into Gaza can be combated. While the IDF operation has, by most accounts, dealt Hamas a heavy blow, the organization remains intact, and its thirst for rockets, which has always been high, is likely now more unquenchable than ever. "We must deal with the rockets the moment they leave Iran," Brom said. "And the most essential element on this front is intelligence. Information on the smuggling - where the rockets are coming from, who's transporting them - this is the first step in stopping them. Once that information becomes available, those shipments can be intercepted." Citing the United States' 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative - in which at least 10 countries pledged to crack down on the smuggling of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as missiles and goods that could be used to deliver or produce such weapons, to terrorists and countries suspected of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction - Brom said a similar initiative would be needed for the rockets being smuggled into Gaza. "If they can do it with nuclear weapons, why can't they do the same thing with Grads?" he asked. "In the framework of this initiative, many countries would cooperate and intelligence would be shared. Otherwise, the rockets will make their way to Egypt, and then it's up to the Egyptians to stop them." Asked if the Egyptian security forces could be relied upon to thwart the smuggling, Brom replied, "The only reason Hamas was able to rearm itself so effectively during the six-month cease-fire was because of an atrocious negligence on behalf of the Egyptians. If we leave it up to them, it won't solve the problem." Yet others doubt the ability, if not the resolve, of the international community to make a serious attempt at stopping the smuggling. "I doubt it very much," said Eyal Zisser, a professor of Middle East history and a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center. "How many of these rockets have been fired into Israel? One hundred? Two hundred? We're not talking about smuggling 100 tanks across the border. These rockets can be smuggled so easily through Sudan or other countries like it. Trying to intercept them on an international level would be a waste of time and effort." Instead of scattering intelligence operations across the world, Zisser said, efforts to stop Hamas from rearming itself should be focused on the Egyptian border. "It's not that I'm against doing everything we can do on other levels to stop the smuggling," he continued. "It's just that it's not particularly difficult for these rockets to be smuggled to Egypt, and I doubt that any effort could make it more difficult. Take a country like Sudan or Somalia, where half of the population is unemployed, and all it takes is one fisherman's boat to bring 10 or 20 of these rockets to shore. There's no shortage of people who are willing to do that, and I don't see how an international force could infiltrate such a vast network." Furthermore, Zisser explained, the Iranian ships transporting the rockets don't arrive at port with only missiles on board. "They're hidden away among other cargo," he said. "So who is going to inspect every Iranian ship, or Syrian ship, or Lebanese ship that arrives in their port? These days, the rockets could even arrive on a ship from Venezuela." Therefore, Zisser said, it would be more effective to tackle the smuggling of rockets the same way officials target the smuggling of other illegal substances, such as hashish. Additionally, the presence of an international force on the Egyptian border with Gaza would be a must. "Trying to stop the rockets with an international force [on the border] would be more effective than trying to stop the rockets elsewhere," Zisser said. "Otherwise, it's just a waste of time."