Arms from Iran: A Rash of Intercepted Shipments

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Amir Cohen / Reuters

Weapons at the port of Ashdod after Israeli commandos seized them from a German-owned cargo ship

The fall of Hosni Mubarak not only left Iran with one enemy fewer; it also loosened Egypt's control of the Sinai Peninsula — the preferred route for smuggling arms into the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian enclave is ruled by Hamas, the militant Islamist group that Iran funds and arms. Iran is evidently eager to exploit opportunities in Sinai.

On March 13, Egyptian border guards stopped five trucks just north of Egypt's border with Sudan. Shots were fired, and the drivers fled, leaving behind a cargo of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and explosives. Egyptian officials told reporters the ordnance was headed for delivery to Hamas through the web of tunnels that run under Egypt's border with Gaza. A report from Sudan put the number of trucks at seven.

Then on March 15, Israeli commandos boarded the container ship Victoria in the Mediterranean. Opening containers listed on the manifest as holding lentils and cotton, the Israelis found 2,400 mortars, 67,000 Kalashnikov rounds and a half-dozen C-704 land-to-sea missiles and radar systems to guide them. There were instruction books in Farsi, the language of Iran. The vessel had previously stopped in Syria, Iran's major ally in the region, and was on its way to the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

The ship had made a stop in the Turkish port of Mersin on the way, but Israeli officials took pains to say there was no indication that Turkey had any knowledge of the shipment. And indeed, March 16 brought news of Turkish F-16s forcing a massive Iranian cargo plane to land as it flew through Turkish airspace in route to Syria. The suspicion was that the Russian-made Ilyusin was ferrying arms either to Hizballah, the Shi'ite militia that Iran sponsors in Lebanon, or to Hamas — or else that it was carrying materials related to Iran's nuclear program. After an inspection, however, Turkish officials declared the cargo included "nothing illegal" and let it continue to Aleppo.

"The assumption is that Iran is always trying to smuggle more weapons,'' says Miri Eisin, a retired Israeli colonel with a background in intelligence. "They don't have any incentive not to smuggle weapons."

It's not clear whether Iran is sending out more shipments than usual or if it's just that for some reason more of them are being detected. The revolutionary atmosphere in the region may have increased watchfulness among Middle East governments regarding the movement of arms. "I think there's a lot more awareness ... that more weapons [are] wandering around the Middle East now," says Eisin. "It's like, where are they going? Which side are you on?"

Israeli defense officials were rattled by the discovery of the antiship missiles. An Israeli warship, the Hanit, was nearly sunk by a similar missile off the coast of Lebanon during Israel's 2006 war against Hizballah. Four Israelis were killed. Until the radar-guided missile whipped across the Mediterranean, Israel had no idea Hizballah — for which the attack was a propaganda victory — had such an advanced weapon. On March 15, several Israeli newspapers quoted officials saying that in the hands of Hamas, such a weapon would upend the "military balance" and require unspecified Israeli intervention.

Another lesson of all these shipments headed for Gaza: Hamas seems to have recovered from the assassination of its main arms procurer, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel room. Six months after his death, Israeli intelligence calculated that arms smuggling into Gaza was down 70% to 80%. A senior intelligence official reported last fall that the flow of arms showed signs of recovering, and the recent flurry would seem to confirm that.

The seizure of the Victoria — a German-owned, Liberian-flagged vessel that Israeli officials said appeared to be innocent of its cargo — was an intelligence triumph for Israel, and an important one; Eisin says that the more advanced weapons tend to come by sea. But as Israeli officials traded congratulations over what they had found, the discovery also raised a question: What surprises might have been in earlier shipments that went undetected? "We're always worried," Eisin says, "about what we didn't intercept."