When Israeli naval commandos boarded the Francop, an Antigua-flagged freighter, early Wednesday morning off Cyprus, they had a pretty good idea of what they would find. Sure enough, by the time the vessel was fully inspected some hours later, the Israelis had uncovered more than 3,000 rockets and shells in what they believe was a well-disguised Iranian arms shipment to Hizballah in Lebanon.
"This is another success in the endless struggle against attempts to smuggle weapons and military equipment, whose goal is to strengthen terrorist elements who threaten the security of Israel," said Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But Israeli sources made clear that the interception of the weapons was a joint operation with Western allies. Brigadier General Rani Ben-Yehuda, deputy commander of Israel's navy, explained that the Israelis had coordinated with NATO vessels before stopping the Francop, questioning its crew and requesting an inspection. After the initial search confirmed that the vessel was carrying weapons, it was directed to dock at an Israeli navy base in Ashdod.
Israeli security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the interception of the vassel followed a comprehensive and complicated intelligence operation involving Israel, the U.S and European countries. Supplying arms to Hizballah is prohibited under U.N. Security Council resolutions that were adopted during the summer 2006 war in Lebanon. The arms shipment had been under surveillance since the moment it left the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas 10 days earlier aboard an Iranian vessel, said the sources. They said it sailed 2,500 miles through the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, before docking in an Egyptian harbor. Then on Nov. 3, 36 containers carrying the weapons were loaded onto a German-owned ship that sailed on a route that would have taken it via Cyprus to the Syrian port of Latakia. From there, said the sources, the weapons would have been transferred to Hizballah's arsenal in Lebanon.
The Israeli sources said the shipment violates not only the Security Council resolutions from the 2006 war, but also those that forbid Iran from engaging in any arms exports. "The weapons included enough ammunition and missiles to supply Hizballah for a month or more of fighting against Israel," said Ben-Yehuda.
Since the beginning of 2009, U.S. vessels have twice intercepted Iranian arms shipments. In January, 98 containers were confiscated from a Russian ship sailing to Syria. In early October, the U.S. Navy stopped a German cargo vessel in the Red Sea that was bringing Iranian-made weapons to Syria.
The Syrian reaction was a total denial. "Unfortunately, some pirates sometimes take action in the name of inspection and prevent the sailing of commercial ships," said Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, of Wednesday's allegations during a visit in Tehran. Iran and Syria are close allies and Hizballah's major backers, with Syria serving as a conduit for Iranian weapons supplies to the Lebanese Shi'ite militia. But Israeli security sources said the 300 tons of weapons seized on Wednesday are but a fraction of what Hizballah already has in its secret warehouses. Israel claims that the Lebanese militia has already doubled its stockpile since the 2006 war. Indeed, Israel counts Wednesday's interception as a rare success in disrupting an ongoing Iranian program to resupply Hizballah.