Just what the spin doctor ordered: an arms shipment from Iran's government

An ‘explainer’ from the BBC is followed by Richard Silverstein’s interpretation. A Reuters report gives the basic facts as known at the time.

Israel’s clandestine battle with weapons smugglers

By Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent
March 05, 2014

The announcement by Israel that it has seized a major shipment of weaponry heading to the Gaza Strip from Iran throws a spotlight on alleged ongoing attempts to arm militants there, and Israel’s aim to thwart them.

It is not the first such shipment to be intercepted, but Israel says the armaments were of a much more advanced – and dangerous – kind than on previous occasions.

So how does this compare to previous Gaza arms interceptions?

The most famous episode is that of the Karine-A in January 2002. It loaded its cargo in Iran and was subsequently boarded by Israeli commandos, who found some 50 tons of weaponry on board.

Earlier shipments, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) note, have comprised standard weaponry such as mortars, small-arms ammunition and medium-range rockets. The shipment on board the KLOS-C in March 2014 contained similar items but also the M-302 rockets.

Why is the Israeli navy operating so far from its own shores?

The Red Sea is the cockpit for a clandestine battle going on between Palestinian weapons smugglers, their backers and the Israeli military.

Israel monitors traffic there closely and is believed to have small but significant intelligence assets in the area.

Sudan is the focus of much of this alleged smuggling activity. In October 2012 four unidentified aircraft – presumed to be Israeli – attacked a warehouse or factory complex on the outskirts of Khartoum.

In April 2011 a prominent Hamas official believed to have been involved in weapons procurement for the Gaza Strip-based Palestinian organisation was killed by a missile-strike in Port Sudan.

The Sudanese authorities pointed the finger at Israel. In 2009 there were credible reports of a major arms convoy in the Sudan being hit from the air.

But why the Red Sea?

Sudan is believed by intelligence experts to be a key staging post for weaponry heading from Iran to Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip.

US diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks show that as far back as January 2009 the US was urging Sudan to halt arms flights between Tehran and Khartoum.

In the March 2014 case – unusually – the Israelis say that the weaponry actually originated in Syria from where it was flown to Tehran.

It was then put on board the Klos-C at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

From there it went to Um Qasr in Iraq, before heading back out of the Gulf and round to the Red Sea where it was intercepted.

The Israelis say that it was due to dock in Port Sudan, from where the weapons would have moved overland through the Sinai Peninsula and ultimately into the Gaza Strip.

If the shipment had got through, how would it actually have got into Gaza?

The new Egyptian authorities have closed down many of the smuggling tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula into the Gaza Strip and there is no love lost between the Egyptian military and Hamas.

A Hamas security official at the Egypt-Gaza border near Rafah. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

However the chaos in the Sinai – where the Egyptian military is waging a bitter counter-insurgency struggle against a loose coalition of Jihadists and local criminal groups – means that Egypt probably cannot seal the border to the Gaza Strip as firmly as it might wish.

What threat could the weapons have posed?
The M-302 is a ground-to-ground rocket manufactured in Syria since the 1990s.

The basic missiles have ranges of between 90 and 115km (56 to 71 miles) although there are versions with almost double this range.

Hamas has had small numbers of longer-range missiles before. It fired five locally-manufactured M-75 rockets during the conflict with Israel in November 2012.

These have a range of up to 70km (43 miles).

Hamas is believed to have manufactured a few dozen of these weapons since then, but clearly the M-302 would give the organisation the ability to strike deep into Israel in addition to complicating the job of Israeli missile defences, because the area to be defended grows with the range of the missile.

Below: Army trucks carry Egyptian military tanks into the Sinai Peninsula, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. Photo by AP.

Israeli Navy Intercepts Alleged Iranian Arms Shipment Near Sudanese Port

By Richard Silverstein
March 05, 2014

The NY Times reports that the Israeli Navy captured a shipment of Iranian weapons on a ship in international waters near a Sudanese port. Israel is claiming the Syrian-made advanced rockets were sent by Iran and destined for shipment to Gaza. The commander of the Navy, Ram Rothenberg, led the operation himself, indicating how important the interception was both militarily, but even more importantly, politically.

Israel was quick to make unproven claims that the shipment represents the official political position of the Iranian government, meaning that it may not be trusted either with nuclear weapons or even in the negotiations about its nuclear program:

The apparent intelligence and operational coup provided Israel’s leaders with an opportunity to underscore their arguments about the true nature of the Iranian government at a time when the jworld powers are engaged in talks with Iran to curb its nuclear program.

“At a time when it is talking to the major powers, Iran smiles and says all sorts of nice things,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu…said in a statement. “The same Iran is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations.”

Iran is doing so, he said, “via a ramified network of secret operations in order to send rockets, missiles and other deadly weapons that will be used to harm innocent citizens.”

He continued: “This is the true Iran, and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons. We will continue to do whatever is necessary in order to defend Israel’s citizens.”

This, of course, is nonsense. This is no more the official policy of the Iranian political echelon than saying that Israeli arms shipments to Syria rebels in the Golan represent Israel’s official position regarding the Syrian civil war. Further, this sort of statement disregards the political situation within Iran. Because of decades of military threat from Israel, the U.S. and other Gulf States, Iran has ceded massive amounts of power to its military arm, the Revolutionary Guards. They are an autonomous center of power in much the same way that the Egyptian army, which wrested civilian control in a coup, is.

Here is how Prof. Muhammad Sahimi characterized the incident:

It is either fabrication, or carried out by hardliners in Tehran in order to scuttle the negotiations. They are opposed to the nuclear agreement and know that if a permanent agreement is signed, they will lose their economic and political power.

We have had at least two other similar operations by the hardliners in the past, in order to disrupt rapprochement between Iran and the West, one during Rafsanjani[‘s rule] and one during Khatami…

So, if the ship is from Iran, it was sent by rogue elements within IRGC without authorization even from Khamenei. That is what happened with the Karin-1 incident.

This is why people like me have been urging the West to be realistic with Iran, and recognize that with a reasonable agreement, Rouhani will be able to largely neutralize Tehran’s hardliners, but if the West demands too much, the hardliners will eventually remove him or neutralize him, in which case we will have war.

Alex Fishman, one of Israel’s best security reporters confirms the likelihood that the shipment is intended to undermine Iran’s political leadership:

Knowledgable sources in Israel concede that it is possible that that the civilian leadership, which is seeking to restrain the power of the Revolutionary Guards and impose its more conciliatory policies upon them, wasn’t aware of the arms shipment. This may’ve been an act of defiance against Pres. Rouhani, and something which could lead to an overt break between him and the IRG.

The latter portion of this quotation sounds a bit too much like Mossad machinations to divide and conquer Iran as it has the Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians. Israeli intelligence might remember that a showdown between Iran’s civilian leadership and the IRG could lead to a military coup in which the hardliners assume control of the political apparatus as well. Though this eventuality too might be attractive to Israel’s Machiavellian strategists since it would drive Iran farther into international isolation.

What I so object to regardingly Israel’s policy toward Iran is that it is like the bettor at the track who bets on all the horses to lose, rather than betting on one horse to win. Israel doesn’t want any Iranian “horse” to win. It wants them all to be weak and/or lose. This sort of policy is essentially nihilistic, value-free, and almost rudderless.

Returning to Pres. Rouhani, he no more sent those weapons to Sudan than Bibi Netanyahu armed the former IDF soldiers who are fighting today in Ukraine. My own confidential Israeli source has offered important information about the raid not reported elsewhere, which provides needed context. This was an operation of the Revolutionary Guards. The shipment was meant for the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The IRG, after dumping Hamas during the Syrian civil war, has embraced IJ as its new ally in Gaza.

What is most interesting and ironic about this if what Prof. Sahimi says is true, is that both the current Israeli government and Iranian hardliners have a common interest in scuttling the negotiations. The IRG sent the shipment to sabotage the moderate political leadership and their happy collaborator in exposing the shipment was the Israeli government, which also wants the same thing. It makes you wonder…

The State Department has taken the unusual step of taking credit for U.S. intelligence involvement in tracking the shipment and its interception. This too appears to be an attempt by the U.S. to minimize the amount of hay Bibi can make from this incident. If we knew about the shipment all along, we also presumably would’ve known the Iranian political echelon had no idea of what was happening. Were this not the case, I’m certain we would be publicly denouncing Rouhani and Khamenei right now.

Israel gleaned the intelligence for this operation through two agents it had turned, one inside the IRG headquarters in Teheran and another in the IJ military wing. According to my source, these double agents have been directed to leave Gaza and Iran, respectively, which is why Israel can expose the operation now. Israeli SIGINT (Unit 8200) also was used in determining what the Iranians had planned and when to intercept them.

My source also confirms that while the timing of the operation itself was not political (they timed it for the moment when the ship was nearest Eilat, where the Navy’s operational base is), the timing of the release of the information is definitely political. It was intended for maximum impact during Bibi’s visit to Washington and the day after his speech to Aipac, during which he excoriated Iran. It is also meant to damage (though it’s questionable just how much it will) the P5+1 talks with Iran. The Navy would have preferred not announcing the operation now, because its forces are still at sea and not back on Israeli territory. But political considerations trumped the safety of Israeli personnel.

This incident raises several important issues which no U.S. or Israeli leader will address. One is that the Syrian civil war is a tinder box that must be extinguished through negotiation with Iran and Syria’s other allies. The longer we allow Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Gulf States to turn that country into a proxy war, the more likely a huge regional explosion will occur. Second, the failure to address the problems of Gaza including Israel’s siege there, is causing massive disruption to regional stability. Even the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have intentionally refused to include Gaza: a major mistake. You cannot truly resolve this conflict without a comprehensive solution that addresses Palestine as a single entity. Another reason why ultimately, these talks must fail and why continued instability, exemplified by this arms shipment, will plague the region.

Israel seizes arms shipment

By Dan Williams, Reuters
March 05, 2014

JERUSALEM–The Israeli navy seized a ship in the Red Sea on Wednesday that was carrying dozens of advanced Iranian-supplied rockets made in Syria and intended for Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip, the military said.

The disclosure came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States to press his case for tougher international action against Iran over its disputed nuclear program and support for Islamist guerrilla groups.

The Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel Klos C was boarded in international waters without resistance from its 17-strong crew in a “complex, covert operation,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner told reporters.

Lerner said dozens of M302 rockets were found aboard the Klos C, a weapon which could have struck deep into Israel from Gaza and would have significantly enhanced the firepower of the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers and other armed factions.

“The M302 in its most advanced model can strike over 100 miles, and if they would have reached Gaza, ultimately that would have meant millions of Israelis under threat,” he said.

Hamas dismissed the Israeli announcement as a “silly joke”.

“This is a new Israeli lie aimed to justify and prolong the blockade of Gaza,” said Taher Al-Nono, an advisor of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

There was no immediate comment from Iran or Syria.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States helped Israel by providing information on the ship.

“Soon after becoming aware of the imminent movement of the suspected vessel, the White House directed the Department of Defense to monitor the vessel,” she said.

Psaki said U.S. options for handling the ship included taking unilateral action if necessary but that after sharing intelligence, Israel chose to take the lead in the operation.

Military footage showed the Israeli navy chief, Admiral Ram Rothberg, inspecting a rocket on the floor of a ship hold, with cement bags labeled “Made in Iran” in English next to it.

Lerner said the rockets were flown from Syria to Iran, from where they were shipped first to Iraq and then towards Sudan. Had they reached the African coast, they would have probably been smuggled overland through Egypt to Gaza, he said.

Nic Jenzen-Jones, an Australia-based military arms specialist and director of Armament Research Services, said most reports indicated the Syrian-produced rockets had a 90 to 100 Km range.

“Several Israeli assessments of these rockets have questioned their reliability,” he said. “(Lebanese Shia group) Hezbollah has made use of these rockets, and Hamas is believed to be attempting to stockpile longer-range rocket systems.”


Israel and Islamist Hamas last fought a major conflict in November 2012. Hamas has largely held fire since but Israel says it has been trying to build up its capabilities. That has been made difficult, however, by a new military regime in Cairo which has cracked down on the Egyptian border with Gaza.

Netanyahu’s office said that the prime minister, who was in Los Angeles on Wednesday after holding a White House meeting and addressing a pro-Israel lobby in Washington, had approved the ship seizure after consultations with his security chiefs.

“At the same time that it is talking to world powers, at the same time that Iran is smiling and saying all kinds of honeyed words, that same Iran is sending lethal weaponry to terrorist organizations and it is doing so in a complex web of covert, worldwide operations,” Netanyahu said from Los Angeles.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel had obtained Panama’s permission to board the ship.

“We followed international law to the letter. The ship travelled under a Panamanian flag, the company was listed in Marshall Islands, the captain was Turkish and the crew was from various different countries,” he told a conference in Tel Aviv.

In a speech to the AIPAC lobby on Tuesday, Netanyahu had reiterated his unhappiness with the prospect that world powers negotiating a curb on Iran’s nuclear program would let it retain some technologies with bomb-making potential.

The Islamic republic denied seeking nuclear weapons and accused its arch-foe Israel of being the real regional menace.

Iran had orchestrated the shipment, Lerner said, describing the process as months in the making. The Klos C was being brought to the Israeli port of Eilat where its contents would be more fully inspected and displayed to the public.

Lerner said there was no immediate indication the crew had known the nature of their cargo.

According to tracking data, the Klos C was previously at Bandar Abbas port in Iran in early February 2014 and prior to that in Port Said in January.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Jerusalem and Bill Trott in Washington

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