How Many Have Been Missed?

No one expects the Iranians to stop their smuggling effort to Hamas or Hizballah or the UN to do anything about it.

Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu examine missile (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu examine missile
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
THE LIBERIAN-FLAGGED FREIGHTER “VICTORIA,” intercepted by Israel Navy commandos on March 15, was the fourth vessel carrying weapons from Iran to its proxy militias in Gaza or Lebanon captured by Israel since 2001.
Pinpointing the ship with 50 tons of arms, including sophisticated land-to-sea missiles hidden under sacks of lentils and cotton, was a major intelligence coup. It also laid bare the degree of Iranian involvement in the terrorist war against Israel. But there was a worrying question: For every arms-laden vessel or arms consignment captured, how many more have been missed? Boarded in the Mediterranean about 200 nautical miles west of Israel, the “Victoria” was carrying six Iranian-made Chinese C-704 land-to-sea missiles, two missile launchers with computerized operating stations and instruction manuals in Farsi, two British-made coastal radar systems, over two hundred 120 mm mortar shells, over two thousand 60 mm mortar shells and around 75,000 Kalashnikov rifle bullets destined for Hamas in Gaza.
The C-704s, with a range of 35 kilometers and a capacity to accurately target naval vessels, ports and gas rigs, could have posed a significant threat to Israel’s marine and coastal infrastructure. Naval Commander Admiral Eliezer Merom went so far as to call them “game-changing” weapons.
In November 2009, Israel captured a much larger Iranian consignment.
Destined for Hizballah in Lebanon, the Antigua and Barbuda-flagged “Francop” was carrying 320 tons of weaponry, including thousands of Katyusha rockets and mortar shells, an estimated ten percent of the entire Hizballah inventory. It was the biggest ever single arms shipment seized by Israel. During the second intifada, Israel seized two Iranian weapons’ shipments to the Palestinians, aboard the “Santorini” in May 2001 and the “Karine A” in January 2002. As a result of the capture of the “Karine A,” then-US president George Bush radically changed his attitude to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was directly involved in the attempted smuggling.
Over the past several months, five Iranian arms shipments have been seized in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean and Italy. In August last year, Italian authorities found seven tons of powerful RDX explosives, presumably destined for Hizballah, in a container at the port of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy.
According to Israeli officials, the main naval route used by the Iranians for arms smuggling to Gaza goes through the Syrian port of Latakia to Turkey and then to Alexandria in Egypt. From there, the arms go overland across Sinai and through the cross-border smuggling tunnels into Gaza. Hundreds of ships ply this route on a regular basis. Stopping all those carrying arms would seem to be a mission impossible.
There are also two air routes: From Iran through Oman and Saudi Arabia to Sudan and then overland through Egypt to Gaza, or from Iran, through Syria, Jordan and Egypt to Sudan and then back overland to Gaza. In January 2009, Israeli aircraft reportedly bombed an arms convoy en route to Egypt from Sudan.
The arms smuggling air route to Hizballah, is more direct, going from Iran over Turkey to Syria and then overland into Lebanon. In mid-March, two Iranian planes en route to Damascus were forced down for inspection in Turkey after the Turkish authorities received intelligence tip-offs from the US.
The effort and expense invested by Iran in the arms smuggling effort makes preventing it a Sisyphean task with little chance of success. For every consignment intercepted, the obvious assumption is that several more get through. Hamas in Gaza already has more than 10,000 missiles and rockets; the figure for Hizballah in Lebanon is over 40,000. Between them they can reach virtually any point in Israel.
Why is arming Hizballah and Hamas so vitally important for Iran? There are three main reasons: To help Iran in any future holy war the Iranian regime might launch against the “Zionist entity”; to respond with a destructive hail of rocket and missile fire, if Israel strikes at Iran’s nuclear installations; but mainly, because of the fear of that destructive response, to deter Israel or its allies from attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program.
On Friday, March 18, Israel lodged an official complaint with the UN Security Council against Iran’s arms smuggling aboard the “Victoria.” It cited UN Resolutions barring Iran from exporting weapons in any shape or form, let alone smuggling them. But Meron Reuben, the acting Israeli ambassador, was only going through the motions. No one expects the Iranians to stop their smuggling effort or the UN to do anything about it. What is certain though is that, as the parties directly involved prepare for a looming showdown, the cat and mouse game on the high seas will continue.